BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s highest Court ruled that a cabinet minister breached neutrality rules that apply to government members by issuing a statement on her ministry’s website accusing members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) of promoting radicalisation.
The ruling underscores the challenges facing politicians trying to take on the AfD, which won nearly 13 percent in a Sept. 24 election at the expense of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
In 2015, during the height of a large influx of Muslim migrants, Johanna Wanka, then education minister, responded to an AfD slogan at a Berlin protest rally that read, “Red card for Merkel - asylum needs borders.”
Wanka issued a statement on the ministry’s website saying the red card should be shown to the AfD, not Merkel. She added:
“Bjoern Hoecke and other party spokespeople are contributing to social radicalisation. Right-wing extremists, who openly incite hatred and violence, like the head of (anti-Islam grassroots movement) PEGIDA boss Lutz Bachmann, thus receive intolerable support.”
Hoecke is a senior member of the AfD who has deplored the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, calling it a “monument of shame”, and wants German history books on the Nazi era to be rewritten.
The Constitutional Court said on Tuesday that Wanka had violated the AfD’s right to equal opportunities as her remarks may have negatively affected peoples’ view of the party.
It ruled that while the government was allowed to explain its actions in response to criticism, state organs were not allowed to react to “unobjective and defamatory attacks” in the same way.
The court said that by publishing the press release on the ministry website, Wanka “violated the right of the AfD to equal opportunities of political parties”.
AfD leaders welcomed the decision, saying it was a clear signal to the government not to misuse taxpayers’ money for “political agitation against the opposition”.
“Thank goodness there are judges in Karlsruhe,” said AfD leader Alexander Gauland, referring to the southwestern city where the court is based.
Since the election, the AfD - originally set up in 2013 as an anti-euro party but which has morphed into a nationalist party opposed to immigration - has gained in polls. An INSA poll on Tuesday put the AfD on 16 percent, higher than the SPD.
The main parties are trying to counter the AfD’s positions with facts and arguments, but checks and balances embedded in Germany’s political system after World War Two mean they have to respect the AfD’s legitimacy in parliament.
The AfD is set to be the main opposition party provided Merkel’s conservatives and leaders of the Social Democrats get SPD membership approval to renew their “grand coalition’.
The rightists will be entitled to lead some parliamentary committees, including the powerful budget committee.
Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Mark Heinrich