Q&A: German far right bucks European trend
While far-right or right-wing populist parties have won seats in national parliaments in countries such as France, Italy and the Netherlands, no similar breakthrough has occurred in Germany despite a relatively favourable electoral system.
The latest annual report by the German domestic intelligence agency confirms a decline in the membership of "right-wing extremist" parties over the last few years.
However, it also reports a growing neo-Nazi scene, and evidence of widespread racist and anti-Muslim sentiments means that an upsurge in support for such parties cannot be ruled out.
Who are the main players?
Germany's biggest far-right party is the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany - The People's Union (NPD). The party, which was founded in 1964, promotes a racial kind of nationalism and calls for Germany's borders in 1937 to be reinstated.
In its annual report for 2011, published on 18 July 2012, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution says the NPD "strives to overcome the current political system in Germany". However, in 2003 a government-led attempt to ban the party failed.
Another player, the German People's Union, merged with the NPD in 2011.
A right-wing populist party, the Republikaner, was represented in three state legislatures in the nineties but is no longer a significant force at state or national level.
A more recent addition to the far-right political landscape is the anti-Muslim Pro Movement, which started in Cologne in 1996 and has spread beyond the city since 2005.
The intelligence agency report says the Pro Movement's North Rhine-Westphalia branch aims to "restrict rights guaranteed by the constitution, such as religious freedom".
How have they fared in recent elections?
Germany's voting system is based on proportional representation but parties must obtain at least 5% of the vote in order to win any seats in state or national elections.
The NPD has managed to do just that in two east German states in recent years. In Saxony it won 9.2% in 2004 and 5.6% in 2009. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern it won 7.3% in 2006 and 6.0% in 2011.
Other parties, such as the Republikaner and Pro Movement parties, have scored less than 2% in recent state elections.
The combined far-right vote in the 2009 federal election was just 2%. The NPD, which obtained 1.5%, achieved markedly better results in the former East Germany than in the former West Germany.
Why is the NPD stronger in the east?
Media commentators believe the high level of support for the NPD in parts of the east is the result of a widespread feeling of injustice combined with the presence of a significant base of loyal voters in some areas.
Some analysts have also argued that the accession of East Germany to the West in 1990 was underpinned by racial ideas about the German nation. It may thus have fostered a racial sense of national identity among the new citizens, as advocated by the NPD.
Why are there more neo-Nazis?
Political parties are merely one manifestation of a wider far-right scene in Germany.
The latest intelligence agency report records a fall in the membership of "right-wing extremist" parties from 14,200 to 7,300 between 2007 and 2011. But it notes an increase in the number of "neo-Nazis" from 4,400 to 6,000 in the same period.
The intelligence agency attributes the rise to the "action-oriented nature" of the neo-Nazi scene, which it says appeals in particular to young right-wing extremists.
A nail bomb attack and a series of murders carried out between 2000 and 2007 have been attributed to a neo-Nazi group which was only uncovered in November 2011. The intelligence agency warns that "comparable radicalisation processes" among other groups "cannot be ruled out" and that the number of right-wing extremists ready to use violence has gone up from 9,500 in 2010 to 9,800 in 2011.
Are far-right parties doomed?
The intelligence agency report records an overall fall in the number of people linked with right-wing extremism from 31,000 to 22,400 between 2007 and 2011. The main driver behind this development is the fall in the membership of far-right parties.
However, a study published in 2011 by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation suggests that "widespread" racist and anti-Muslim attitudes in Europe are no less common in Germany than in countries such as France, Italy or the Netherlands.
There is thus a greater potential for German far-right parties to succeed at the ballot box than recent election results and party membership figures might suggest.
On the other hand, there is renewed debate in Germany about the possibility of banning the NPD, and there is currently no far-right contender likely to match or surpass that party's electoral appeal in the short term.
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