An entire chapter of Germany's far-right AfD party has been put under surveillance for suspected extremism, the country's domestic intelligence agency confirmed Monday, fuelling calls for the whole party to be monitored as an extremist threat.
At a press conference Monday, officials said there were sufficient indications that the party's chapter in the eastern state of Brandenburg presented a right-wing extremist threat against Germany's liberal democratic order to place it under surveillance. The designation means state intelligence agents can monitor the group using undercover investigations and by collecting personal data, although special permission must be obtained to carry out eavesdropping.
"The Brandenburg AfD has become more and more radical since its foundation and is now dominated by efforts that are clearly directed against our free democratic basic order," said Brandenburg's Interior Minister Michael Stübgen.
The anti-immigration party, whose name means "Alternative for Germany", rode a wave of anger over the arrival of more than a million migrants into Germany. In the 2017 elections it became the country's third strongest political force, capturing 12.6 percent of the national vote. But its fortunes have taken a recent dip, polling at just 8 percent in a recent survey, while the party has been riven with infighting between radical nationalist and more conservative factions.
The surveillance announcement comes amid a bitter rift within the party over the role of influential extremist Andreas Kalbitz, its state leader in Brandenburg, who is a key figure on the AfD's radical flank nationally.
Last month, the AfD's national leaders voted to expel the 47-year-old former soldier from the party over his former ties to a now-banned neo-Nazi youth group, German Youths Loyal to the Fatherland. But despite his expulsion, the party's Brandenburg chapter voted to retain Kalbitz as their state chief, creating a standoff with the national executive and underlining concerns about extremism within the organization.
Kalbitz, along with his close ally Björn Höcke, the head of the party in the state of Thuringia, led the radical nationalist faction of the party known as "The Wing". In March, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency classified the faction as "a right-wing extremist endeavor against the free democratic basic order", leading the AfD’s national leadership to pressure the faction to disband, which it claimed to have done in April.
However, Brandenburg officials said that the alleged dissolution of the extremist "party-within-a-party" had done nothing to remove the extremist elements from the Brandenburg chapter, as members of "The Wing" had simply remained AfD members.
"In the Brandenburg AfD, 'The Wing' has long been the whole bird," said Stübgen. "Even its supposed dissolution therefore makes no difference." The AfD's Thuringia branch, headed by Höcke, is also subject to surveillance by German intelligence.
Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at the Free University of Berlin, told VICE News that the move to put the chapter under surveillance would hurt the AfD.
"This surveillance will harm the credibility for the Brandenburg AfD as well as its political appeal" he said. In particular, he said, it could lead AfD members who worked in the public sector — teachers, police officers, firemen — to rethink their ties to the party to avoid the potentially career-limiting stigma of being affiliated with the group. Others might hesitate to donate funds to the party, he said.
The move to place the state chapter under surveillance has been welcomed by rival parties, analysts and anti-extremism groups.
"It's the right decision," Stefan Lauer, a researcher for the far-right monitoring group Amadeu Antonio Foundation, told VICE News, adding that the party structures in the eastern part of Germany were "generally very, very radical".
He said he hoped the move would eventually lead to the party being subjected to surveillance on a national level for the threat it posed to the country's liberal democratic order.
Germany’s pro-business Free Democrats agreed, saying the move to monitor the party at a national level was a likely next step.
René Wildangel, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News that the surveillance was "a direct result of the proven close ties of AfD representatives to extremist and neo-Nazi structures".
"The fight against populists who have started to enter the political stage — not only in Brandenburg, but Germany and Europe — will only be successful if their illegal networks and activities will be exposed and ultimately broken up," he said.
Neugebauer said the designation would do nothing to resolve the internal disputes that had increasingly made the AfD a "lame duck", as the battle raged between the faction of the party that saw its future as a right-wing party operating within the mainstream of German politics, and the hardline faction which saw its role as an opposition to the political establishment. With no resolution in sight, a split in the party remained a possibility.
"If they want to change its image, they have to change its politics, which seems to be impossible as long as there is no split,” he said.