German political parties enjoy a special constitutional protection. Only the Federal Government, the Bundestag (parliament), and the Federal Council can apply for a ban, and only the Federal Constitutional Court can declare a party unconstitutional and subsequently dissolve it. Over more than six decades, the court has banned two parties: the neo-Nazi SRP in 1952 and (slightly more controversially) the communist KPD in 1956. In both instances, it was the government who initiated the process.
Back in 2001, the then Red-Green government sought to ban the NPD. The attempt failed spectacularly because a qualified minority of the judges raised procedural concerns about the very large number of informers within the party, and the unwillingness of the state to provide the names of these people. While the whole thing was ill-advised, it is best seen as part of a larger symbolic drive against right-wing extremism, which was rampant after unification and fuelled a whole host of violent hate crimes. Back then, the government cajoled the CDU/CSU and FDP into supporting the cause, and all three institutions jointly applied for a ban, thereby raising the stakes and putting a lot of pressure on the court.
This time round, the Federal Council (dominated by the SPD and Green, but with support from the centre right-led state governments) pushes for a ban, while the government has long dragged its feet and finally came up with a statement saying that they would not co-sponsor the bid but still provide assistance. While this sounds half-baked, it might actually be a sensible position, given what sort of evidence against the NPD has been collected.
The most bizarre performance, however, was delivered in today’s debate in the Bundestag. CDU/CSU and FDP tabled a motion not to support the ban and won with their majority, while the opposition voted against. Then the SPD table a motion in favour of a ban. The government parties voted against, the Left and some Greens supported the move, of course to no avail. Next came the Left with their own motion, which was supported by the SPD while the Greens abstained. Finally, the Greens argued that issue should not be rushed through parliament. Now the government and the SPD voted against, while the Left abstained. Throughout the day, everyone agreed that the NPD (which, although bankrupt and electorally battered beyond recognition held their party conference last weekend) was indeed a very nasty party. Five months to go until election day.