Wed, Nov 06, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Should extremist parties be banned in democratic nations?

By Jan-Werner Mueller

One criterion that seems universally accepted is a party’s use, encouragement or at least condoning of violence — as was evidently the case with Golden Dawn’s role in attacks on immigrants in Athens. There is less consensus about parties that incite hatred and are committed to destroying core democratic principles — especially because many extremist parties in Europe go out of their way to emphasize that they are not against democracy; on the contrary, they are fighting for “the people.”


However, parties that seek to exclude or subordinate a part of “the people” — for example, legal immigrants and their descendants — are violating core democratic principles. Even if Golden Dawn — a neo-Nazi party in appearance and content — had not engaged in violence, its extreme anti-immigrant stance and its incitement of hatred at a moment of great social and economic turmoil would have made it a plausible candidate for a ban.

Critics warn of a slippery slope. Any disagreement with a government’s immigration policy, for example, might eventually be deemed “racist,” resulting in curtailment of freedom of speech. Something like the classic US standard — the speech in question must pose a “clear and present danger” of violence — is therefore essential. Marginal parties that are not connected to political violence and do not incite hatred should probably be left in peace — distasteful as their rhetoric may be.


However, parties that are closer to assuming power are a different matter, even if banning them might automatically appear undemocratic (after all, they will already have deputies in parliaments). In one famous case, the European Court of Human Rights agreed with the banning of Turkey’s Welfare Party while it was the senior member of a governing coalition.

It is a myth that bans turn leaders of extremist parties into martyrs. Very few people can remember who led the post-war German neo-Nazis and Communists. Nor is it always the case that mainstream parties can cut off support for extremists by selectively coopting their complaints and demands. Sometimes this approach works, and sometimes it does not, but it always amounts to playing with fire.

Banning parties does not have to mean silencing citizens who are tempted to vote for extremists. Their concerns should be heard and debated; and sometimes banning is best combined with renewed efforts at civic education, emphasizing, for example, that immigrants did not cause Greece’s woes. True, such measures might come across as patronizing — but such forms of public engagement are the only way to avoid making anti-extremism look like extremism itself.

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences

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