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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - BERLIN — Germany is wrestling with a potentially explosive debate over whether to ban the far-right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
Germans have been shocked by revelations that senior figures attended a meeting where mass deportations were allegedly discussed.
A growing backlash has sparked large protests and public condemnation.
The AfD, which continues to poll second nationally, says it's being scandalously smeared by opponents.
"Panic is spreading. We can smell your fear," AfD MP Bernd Baumann declared this week, addressing politicians from the ruling coalition parties.
It was investigative outlet Correctiv that released a bombshell report about a "secret" meeting at a hotel near Berlin in November involving around 20 people — including senior AfD figures and neo-Nazi influencers.
At least two members of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), the party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, were also said to be present — claims being "examined" by party officials.
Discussion allegedly focused on so-called "remigration" — the removal of millions of asylum seekers, "non-assimilated" people and those with "non-German" backgrounds, even if they hold residency rights and citizenship.
Since its release, the report has sparked large anti-AfD rallies including in Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg, and more are due to take place this weekend.
At least 50,000 people turned out in the center of Hamburg on Friday to hear center-left Mayor Peter Tschentscher deliver a message to the AfD: "We are united and determined not to let our country and democracy be destroyed for the second time since 1945."
Many at the protest voiced shock at the deportation plan and concern at the strength of the AfD.
"I feel threatened and I am already making plans to get out of Germany. I don't feel comfortable here any more," said one German citizen whose family comes from Latin America.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has expressed gratitude for the "tens of thousands" of protesters, warning that any expulsion plan amounted to "an attack against our democracy and in turn on all of us".
The AfD leadership's response has been one of combative rebuttals mixed with efforts to distance itself from the controversy. It was a private, rather than secret, meeting and it wasn't organized by the party, they insist.
"Of course everyone who has German citizenship is part of our people," said Alice Weidel, the AfD's co-leader and its most recognisable face.
"That's exactly why the German passport shouldn't be flogged to just anybody."
She condemned any idea of banning her party as well as the reporting that had led to a reigniting of that debate.
"It is scandalous when left-wing activists using Stasi methods attack a private meeting to spy on respectable citizens."
But Weidel has now notably parted ways with her senior aide, Roland Hartwig, who was among those in attendance.
Austrian far-right activist Martin Sellner, who has previously been barred from the UK, is alleged to have presented the mass deportation "masterplan".
It reportedly included details of moving people to a "model state" in North Africa that could provide space for up to two million people.
Sellner has promoted the idea of "remigration" before, mainly for migrants he considers a "burden", but in comments posted on YouTube he said it was mentioned only in passing at Potsdam and then it was "turned into a masterplan for deportation by the lying press".
Reacting to the reports, 25 Social Democratic Bundestag members called for a ban on the AfD to be examined, particularly for the party's "extremist" state associations.
But there's skepticism amongst both lawyers and politicians.
"A ban makes no sense," said Dr . Horst Meier, a constitutional lawyer who believes it would be legally possible but ill-advised.
"The competition between parties needs to happen on the political stage, not in court," he told the BBC.
The German constitution says that parties that seek to undermine or abolish the "free democratic basic order" should be deemed unconstitutional.
Two groups were dissolved in 1950s West Germany: the ultra-right Socialist Reich Party and the Communist KPD, but later cases, against the neo-Nazi NPD, failed.
In 2003 judges found that infiltration of the NPD by German security services had muddied the waters, while in 2017 the movement was deemed too insignificant.
German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck accused the AfD this week of wanting to turn Germany into a Russian-style autocratic state, in comments seen by some as tacit support for a ban.
But speaking to Stern magazine, he acknowledged a failed attempt would cause "massive" damage.
Also sounding a cautious note was Thorsten Frei, an MP from the CDU: "We have to ask ourselves a different question."
"If a party like the AfD polls so high there must be reasons. There's no point in insulting voters," he said.
Alternative für Deutschland has been enjoying record success in the polls in a significant election year, placing second behind the CDU and ahead of all three coalition parties; the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats.
Their rise coincides with dissatisfaction among voters with the divided government, as well as policy issues such as the cost of living and levels of immigration.
The AfD is hoping to make big gains in the European Parliament elections in June and could even emerge as the strongest party in next September's votes in the three eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg.
Any pursuit of a ban would present serious political dangers as well as legal obstacles. Yet Germany's Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser, promised to "use all instruments available" to defend democracy.
The AfD denies racism, but is already under surveillance and has been classified by domestic intelligence as a right-wing extremist organization in Saxony, Thuringia and the neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt.
Reports of the meeting have prompted comparisons to the Nazis' 1940 scheme to deport four million Jews to Madagascar and the Wannsee conference of 1942, where top officials plotted the "Final Solution" — the genocide of Europe's Jewish population.
"Those who fantasize about reconquering and remigration are drawing on the same ideas that paved the way for the inhuman racial laws of the Nazis," said Nancy Faeser.
A party ban was the "sharpest sword available" and she did not rule out using it, but only as a final step. — BBC
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