Germany’s intelligence agency opened an investigation into the far-right Alternative for Germany as a potential threat to the constitutional order, officials said Wednesday, an unprecedented move at the start of a decisive election year for the country.
The decision marks the latest escalation in the scrutiny of Germany’s largest parliamentary opposition party, whose popularity soared in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis. The electoral fortunes of the party, known as the AfD, have waned following a string of scandals but it remains popular in some parts of the country.
Germany faces several important votes this year, with six states going to the polls ahead of a federal election in September that will conclude Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign as chancellor.
Representatives of other political parties, including Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc, welcomed the move.
“The far-right extremists have taken the reins of the AfD…[The party] doesn’t belong in the parliaments,” said Markus Blume, the secretary-general of the Bavarian sister party of Ms. Merkel’s conservatives.
Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the BfV, monitors extremist groups and criminal organizations within the country.
Its investigation into a political group elected to the federal parliament is without precedent in the country’s contemporary history. Such a probe would normally involve electronic surveillance and other forms of wiretapping but the agency agreed to limit its information gathering on elected officials after the AfD filed a lawsuit against its investigation.
Alice Weidel, a co-chair of the AfD and the party’s floor leader in the federal parliament, said the probe was designed to harm the party ahead of the national election.
“We will of course take legal action against the unwarranted proscription of the AfD,” Ms. Weidel tweeted on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the agency declined to comment due to the pending court proceedings.
The AfD, which sits in the parliaments of all 16 German states as well as the federal assembly, was founded in 2013 by fiscal conservatives disillusioned with the country’s economic policy, but morphed into an anti-immigration and anti-Islam party. Its popularity surged after the inflow of almost two million asylum seekers into the country in 2015 and 2016.
The party won 12.6% of the vote at the last federal election in 2017, but controversy around extremist statements and corruption scandals have since dented its popularity.
Opinion polls show the AfD is popular in the country’s former communist east and among members of the police and armed forces.
Parts of the party and individual members have come under legal scrutiny for their radical rhetoric, including anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements, and some individuals or groups within the party have been under investigation by the BfV for months.
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