The Federal Constitutional Court, Germany's highest court, said on Monday it would open proceedings next March on whether to ban the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), increasing the likelihood that the party branded by critics as neo-Nazi could be prohibited and disbanded.
The governments of Germany's 16 states filed a petition to ban the NPD, which the domestic intelligence agency deems "racist, anti-Semitic and revisionist", in December 2013. The Karlsruhe-based court said it would now hold hearings on the case in March of next year.
Opening proceedings has raised the possibility that the party could be banned, since the court would have thrown out the suit if it did not believe it had any chance of succeeding.
A previous attempt to ban the NPD failed in 2003, causing deep embarrassment to the government at the time.
In its 270-page petition, the state governments describe a "recognizable affinity" between the NPD and Hitler's Nazi party, particularly in view of its hostility toward foreigners and its anti-Semitism.
The petition also accuses the NPD of stirring up an "atmosphere of fear" in east Germany, where the party is strongest.
Founded in 1964, the NPD won just 1.3 percent of the vote in the 2013 national election. However, it regards the refugee crisis as an opportunity to broadcast its anti-immigrant message and a spate of attacks on refugee homes has put it in the media spotlight. Around 770 attacks were committed against asylum shelters between January and the end of November, compared to 199 in the whole of 2014.
Jewish leaders welcome move
Banning the NPD has long been a demand endorsed by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Its president, Josef Schuster, on Monday welcomed the court's move, saying that a ban on the party "would be a very important step in the fight against right-wing extremism and a significant contribution to the stability of our democracy."
World Jewish Congress Holocaust Memory Commissioner Charlotte Knobloch also welcomed the decision by the Constitutional Court but called it "excruciating" that so much time had been allowed to pass. "The Nazi ideology, on which the NPD is based, must have no place in today's political culture in Germany," and the NPD should not be allowed to benefit any longer from state subsidies and other privileges afforded to political parties in Germany. "We cannot and must not tolerate the existence of any extreme right-wing political party in Germany," Knobloch declared.