BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany is set to take a major step towards banning the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) on Wednesday when regional politicians formally recommend going ahead with hotly-disputed legal proceedings.
Calls for a clampdown on the far right and a ban of the NPD, which authorities say is inspired by Hitler's Nazis, have grown since last year's discovery that a cell of neo-Nazis had waged a racist killing spree over nearly a decade.
But banning political parties is an especially sensitive matter in Germany, haunted by memories of Nazi and Communist regimes which silenced dissent.
On Wednesday, the interior ministers of Germany's 16 states are widely expected to recommend pursuing a ban, which involves filing a case with the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.
Lorenz Caffier, the conservative interior minister of Mecklenburg Vorpommern who chairs the meeting at the Baltic resort of Warnemuende, said he was "very optimistic" that the ministers would back the recommendation.
"The material we have collected as proof is good and watertight," he told the Ostsee Zeitung daily.
The opposition Social Democrats (SPD) have pushed for the ban despite reservations from some conservatives, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.
She wants to be sure that any case is watertight after an attempt to ban it in 2003 collapsed because informants were used as witnesses. Merkel has said she is worried the NPD could be strengthened if a second bid fails. Other opponents argue that a ban could push the NPD underground and make it more dangerous.
Germany's domestic intelligence service has described the NPD as "racist, anti-Semitic and revisionist" and says it aims to abolish democracy. The party calls the German constitution a "diktat" imposed by victorious Western powers after 1945.
More radical than populist anti-immigrant parties in France, Britain and the Netherlands, the NPD has seats in two state assemblies in eastern Germany and receives around 1 million euros per year in taxpayers' funding.
Believed to have fewer than 10,000 members, it campaigns for full employment, greater national sovereignty in defence and foreign matters and an end to immigration. Critics accuse it of unofficial links to racist and violent groups.
Berlin's openly gay SPD mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said Germany must send a signal to a party he said wants to scrap democracy.
"A party that promotes hatred, that abets xenophobic attitudes, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia and which does not shy away from cooperating with potentially violent groups is poison for our open and tolerant society," he said.
To help the case, German authorities have severed relations with informants in the top levels of the NPD and compiled more than 2,000 pages of evidence to back their case.
Experts say that to ban a party it has to be proven that it has an actively belligerent, aggressive stance and aims to abolish democracy.
The NPD last month filed a case with the court asking it to rule that it is constitutional, a move widely seen as an attempt to pre-empt any ban. Karlsruhe still has to rule on that.
"Democracy and the rule of law are not one-way streets and the NPD is not unconstitutional but stands firmly with two feet on the Basic Law (constitution)," the NPD says on its website.
The ministers' recommendation needs approval from state governors, expected on Thursday, before a vote in the Bundesrat upper house, which represents the 16 states, on December 14.
It will then take up to three months for the case to be prepared for sending to Karlsruhe. It is unclear whether the court could rule on the case before elections in September.
Germany's failure to uncover the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) cell of neo-Nazis who killed foreigners between 2000 and 2007 has sparked accusations that it underestimated the danger from the far right for many years.
The NPD has denied any links with the NSU but experts say informally there is overlap between the political party and social clubs and groups who recruit youngsters to the far-right cause, especially in the impoverished ex-communist East.
Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Roche