This paper considers how ambiguously anti-democratic political parties can be responded to in an effort to protect the constitutional system. The first part of the paper presents the idea of an ambiguously anti-democratic party and the potential dangers these may pose to the constitutional system. The central idea is that threats to democratic states arise often from parties who are able to disguise their anti-democratic ambitions. The second part considers the different ways in which public authorities, political parties and civil society have responded to ambiguously anti-democratic parties and how their different roles and positions in the constitutional system affect the way in which they can respond to different aspects of these parties. Broadly speaking, the different actors respond to different actions by the ambiguously anti-democratic party, creating different opportunities to oppose ambiguously anti-democratic parties. The final section considers some synergies between the different types of actors and their responses as well as the choice between tolerant and intolerant modes of engaging ambiguously anti-democratic parties, arguing in favor of modes that expose the intolerant nature of anti-democratic parties.
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While various types of populist parties no doubt present potentially serious threats to contemporary liberal democracies, they are rarely explicit about their nefarious intentions. This paper considers how ambiguously anti-democratic political parties can be responded to in an effort to protect the constitutional system. It seeks to bring together two strands of scholarship that lie at the heart of democratic defense and populism. The first strand, still rather in its infancy, relates to the nature of what I call ambiguously anti-democratic parties. While constitutional theory has for a long time ignored political parties (Khaitan 2020), it has now turned to theorizing political parties whose commitment to democracy is ambivalent or questionable (Daly and Jones 2020). Many of the populist parties considered in this special issue fall within this category of party and the threats they pose to democracy are then equally veiled or hidden, posing a serious problem as to how to detect and respond to threats to democracy. The second strand of literature relates to the protection of democracy in both its institutional and normative dimensions (Loewenstein 1937; Sajó 2005; Rijpkema and Asbury 2018; Malkopoulou 2019, Olsen, forthcoming, 3–5) and more recently in opposing and responding to populist parties (Bourne, forthcoming, Heinze 2022, Rovira Kaltwasser and Tagget 2016). This paper seeks to evaluate the potential of the various responses to ambiguously anti-democratic parties by the state, political parties and civil society to ambiguously anti-democratic parties.
The first section of this presents the idea of an ambiguously anti-democratic party. These parties, which have proliferated recently and have become significant players in the political arenas of many European states, are characterized by their ambiguous commitment to constitutional fundamentals, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law. They pose a potential threat to these values in an often clandestine way, posing a problem to those who wish to uphold constitutional values in that they may not be able to detect and adequately respond to threats posed by ambiguously anti-democratic parties. To unpack this problem the second section looks at a number of possible responses by different actors to ambiguously anti-democratic parties and how the potential responses are able to mitigate with the various pathologies of ambiguously anti-democratic parties. The third and final section considers how all three different types of actors can contribute to opposing ambiguously anti-democratic parties, both in practice and from a normative point of view. Because of their different positions in the political landscape, the different roles different actor perform and the different ways in which they can respond to populism these three different types of actors have different strengths and weaknesses when responding to populism in general but also when it comes to the way in which the ambiguity surrounding the threats posed by populists may affect those responses. In this exercise, the distinction between tolerant and intolerant measures provides a normative framework for evaluating the desirability of particular measures or their combination.
The rise of the ambiguously anti-democratic party
In a recent article Daly and Jones describe the rise of a “range of populist, illiberal, nativist, xenophobic, far-right, and neofascist parties” with a “questionable commitment to democracy” (Daly and Jones 2020, 509–510) This group includes a wide variety of parties, some who have won elections and are in government in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Austria and Italy. Others, such as the AfD in Germany, have not won elections but are represented in Parliament. The quote at the beginning of this paragraph captures well the breadth and ambiguity of the parties that threaten democracy in this day and age. Then unlike parties of the past which were open about their hostility to democracy and the constitutional order that enshrined it, threats to democracy today come from parties that are not openly hostile to democracy.
In this piece I refer to these parties as ambiguously anti-democratic. While it is difficult to classify these parties in traditional categories of political parties, what matters for our purposes is that they conceal their anti-democratic ambitions while garnering electoral and popular support for such policies. This connection is important as a complete about turn in policy by a party that won elections would not provide long term support and might well be rejected by the electorate who find themselves committed to democracy or other ideals such as non-racism. The work-around for this is a “partially detoxified platforms that steer away from any overt challenge to democratic governance and tend to frame their racist, xenophobic, and illiberal views in a sophisticated manner”. (Daly and Jones 2020, 523) The result are parties that are not openly anti-democratic but that are sufficiently critical—either openly or more commonly through language veiled to some degree—of some of the core tenets of constitutional democracies, that they raise suspicions about their commitment to democratic values.
The result is often political rhetoric that blends populist criticism of the elites, criticism of immigration and asylum policies, of the European Union with the virtues of the “every man”, pitting the rural against the urban, the common sensical against the intellectual, the cosmopolitan against the patriotic (on this last point, see Stanley 2020). The resulting policies—whether worked out as a complete constitutional project like in Hungary and Poland or simply as an attempt to push politics into a particular direction on particular issues—are similarly veiled in a shroud of legitimate policy interests which is notoriously difficult to penetrate.
Hungary’s FIDESZ party under Viktor Orban’s leadership may be the best known example of such a party that has successfully passed itself off as salongfähig for many years while subverting the constitutional order. Since its beginnings as a liberal party in the 1980s that was formed on the back of a youth activist movement, the party’s ideological commitments have shifted over the years. While the party has variously described itself with ambiguous labels such as illiberal or Christian democrats its ideological make up has been drawing on nationalistic, conservative, anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiment in a rather opportunistic fashion. The famous constitutional overhaul that has earned FIDESZ so much notoriety since 2010 have barely featured in the party’s ideological positions and caught many commentators by surprise.
Other examples, such as the AfD in Germany and PiS in Poland, follow a similar mold. The AfD, which was created by a number of academics as a protest against the EU’s common currency Euro, has morphed into “far-right lite” party, which in many ways eludes traditional classifications (Chase, 2017). Without a strong ideological commitments, the party has been able to grow its support, in part at least, by merely focusing on unpopular decisions by the governing coalition such as the decision to take in over 1 million refugees in 2015. Compared to FIDESZ and the AfD, PiS has been somewhat more ideologically conservative since its inception, although even then there was nothing to suggest that it would attempt an authoritarian take-over of the country’s institutions, especially the judiciary.
The problem with parties that pose threats to the constitutional architecture of a state is that they manage to successfully disguise their nefarious intentions behind constitutionalist rhetoric. Often the problem with such parties is attributed to their populism. Populism—at least as political rhetoric if not substantive policy—may play a part in this, primarily to create support for the party and to justify certain constitutional reforms. But its importance should be not exaggerated or taken as all-encompassing, rather it is part of how these parties attract voters and justify their decisions but usually populism is only one part of a larger story which includes opportunism and some degree of authoritarianism. As such, the problem is almost akin to attempting to detect something that is not yet there—or something some may sense is “in the air” but that is difficult to show as has often been the case.
Drawing on the typology of initiatives opposing populist parties the next two sections will consider the different ways in which the ambiguous nature of the political party being responded to affects the response to it.
Responding to ambiguously threatening political parties
As the final sentence of the previous section hinted at, detection cannot be thought of as an abstract activity with a single universal standard of proof that applies to every possible response to potentially anti-democratic parties. This paper is concerned with responding to ambiguously anti-democratic parties, a process that contains both detecting the anti-democratic nature of the party as well as conceiving an appropriate response to it. Identifying, or perhaps more accurately suspecting, the emergence of an ambiguously anti-democratic party is, of course, the first step of responding to parties that may threaten the democratic nature of government. This problem is known in the literature as the “detection problem” (Rijpkema 2019). I will use the detection problem here to refer only to potential difficulty of detecting anti-democratic parties and exclude the detection of the related phenomenon of democratic backsliding (Uitz 2015; Bermeo 2016; Wolkenstein 2022a, b).
This section will consider a range of responses by a range of actors and how the nature of ambiguously anti-democratic parties as ambiguously anti-democratic affects the ability of these actors to respond. From the normative side this article follows the others in this Special Issue in differentiating between tolerant and intolerant responses. Democracy is rooted in respect for one’s political opponents. While there are good reasons as to why it would be justifiable to treat anti-democratic parties in an intolerant manner, arguably tolerant approaches should be preferable. In the case of ambiguously anti-democratic parties, this preference for tolerant responses is arguably heightened as the justification for intolerant measures may require being able to show that the party does form a threat to democracy.
Public authority, and in this I will include international, regional and supranational actors that exercise state-like coercive power, is exercised by multiple actors with various powers aimed at protecting democracy. The state has a vast variety of mechanisms that it can use to tackle anti-democratic parties. This includes the classic tools of militant democracy, party bans and prohibitions on hate speech (Loewenstein 1937). Since then our understanding of militant democracy has also grown beyond these measures to include many other measures (Malkopoulou 2019). There are further less rights restricting options such as pedagogy, which can serve to educate the public about the dangers of certain types of anti-democratic actors. There is also a great number of legal controls that protect human rights and the democratic nature of the state if anti-democratic parties succeed in acceding to power or by pushing policy into a direction that would violate the democratic, human rights or rule of law principles of the state. As the constitutional system is what institutes a functional politics, which is in many ways the best antidote to extremism, any constitutional or legal institution can in some sense be seen as a form of democratic defense in that it produces a well-working ordinary politics. (Bourne 2022). I will focus here on measures that address political parties directly as these are generally considered to be at the core of defending democracy from anti-democratic parties. The central difficulty in addressing the plans of ambiguously anti-democratic parties through legal mechanisms is that very often these parties are very capable of avoiding the defensive mechanisms that exist to defeat them.
This may be most apparent in the case of party bans, the quintessential tool of militant democracy. The German Basic Law, for example, institutes a system for banning political parties that “by reason of their aims or the behaviour of their adherents, seek to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order or to endanger the existence” of Germany (Article 21(1) of the Basic Law. The process for banning a party is closely circumscribed, applications for a party ban can only be brought by political organs (Article 43(1) of the Bundesverfassungsgerichtsgesetz) and the decision to ban a party lies with the Federal Constitutional Court. In a handful of decisions in the 1950s the FCC created a number of criteria that it would consider when deciding whether a party was seeking to undermine the free, democratic order of the Federal Republic. Each of these criteria sets a high standard before a party can be banned as unconstitutional. The first relates to what is considered the democratic basic order, which includes respect for human rights, popular sovereignty, the separation of powers, free and fair elections, judicial independence, multi-party democracy, the rule of law. Secondly, the party in question must seek to actively “undermine or undo” the basic democratic order, simply ignoring is insufficient, rather the party must take an openly hostile attitude towards these. (BVerfGE 2,1; BVerfGE 5, 85) The severity of these restriction to democratic rights posed by a political party ban is captured by such a narrowly tailored provision permitting the bans.
While such a restrictive approach to party bans is needed in order to protect the democratic rights of citizens and to protect against abuse by government against competitors (Brems 2006, 148–150), in practice it also means that very few parties fall foul of its requirements. In Germany the system has been used twice in the 1950s against the successor party of the Nazi party (the Sozialistische Reichspartei) (BVerfGE 2,1) and against the Communist party (BVerfGE 5, 85). More recent attempts have failed. The ban of the Freiheitliche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, a far right organization that was banned by the Minister for the Interior, was found to not be a party at all (BVerfGE 91, 276). The Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NDP) which was found to be too small to pose a threat to the democratic order and therefore should be banned (BVerfGE 144, 20; Moliere and Rijpkema 2018).
While there is some variation between states as to the practice and precise definition of the requirements that justify a party ban (Bourne and Casal-Bertoa 2017) and while some kinds of evidentiary issues will always be expected in all but the most obvious cases (Issacharoff 2015, 79), the German case illustrates how high a bar an archetypal militant democracy wants to set in order to ban parties. As such, it is very unlikely that any of the political parties considered in this article would be considered anti-democratic in terms of a party ban. Notably, there has been no suggestion that the AfD could successfully be banned in terms of the Parteiverbotsverfahren in the German Basic Law.
In recent years, the arsenal of party bans has been supplemented with less restrictive means to limit the activities of potentially anti-democratic parties. The list of different hypothetical and measures is by now rather long and includes various types of restrictions to funding, the disqualification of a list submitted for elections, the criminal conviction of a political party for dissemination of certain proposals from its party programme, annulling an election result after the victory of an undesirable party (Brems 2006, 141–148). Most of these—with the notable exception of annulling an election after the fact—represent weaker limitations of the right to association and the right to participate in political activities than party closures. While the basic dilemma of limiting political rights in case of uncertain threats to the democratic system persists, since a number of these measures represent lighter limitations of those rights, a lower empirical standard or a less stringent process to activate them may be justifiable. Where criminal convictions for individual party members are at stake, the rules of criminal law and procedure, but this may provide an avenue where the party itself falls below the threshold of sanctions against the party itself (see, e.g., Malkopoulou 2019).
The state, then, has formidable powers to shape the political sphere, but the requirements of how it operates and the values that guide the functioning of a democratic state under the rule of law and observing human rights, put significant limits to the way in which it can deal with threats to democracy, both potential and actual. Ambiguously anti-democratic parties are of course aware of this and avoiding legal repercussions is one of their central endeavors. They may not always succeed in this and some are more successful than others at hiding their true colors; after all these days very few people are convinced by claims by FIDESZ or PiS that they are not some sort of authoritarian party. Even the AfD has come under surveillance by the Verfassungsschutz after its members made a significant number of extreme statements. But this seems to be the best the state system can offer, protection when politicians slip up or go too far. Otherwise, contemporary anti-democratic parties are very sophisticated in their efforts to evade the standards set by the state and to appear as acceptable political parties.
Political parties are often assumed to be an essential part of a democratic system of government, yet their role in constitutional theory has been neglected to a great degree (Khaitan 2020). What seems clear is the basic function that political parties perform a “public–private role” in the political system, in which they represent the interests of the electorate in state institutions. In this section, we are concerned with how parties interact, or more specifically how democratic parties interact with anti-democratic populist parties. This “horizontal” relationship renders political parties of great interest to those who are interested in the defense of democracy from political parties.
The dynamics of party political interactions are complex and competing accounts of democracy hold different views on how parties do and ought to behave. Additionally, parties interact with other parties on numerous platforms in public debates, electoral campaigns and in the legislature. In general, however, their scope of interacting with other parties is rather different from that of state actors or civil society. In the first place while state power is almost always repressive in that when it prohibits certain things, it backs these up with the threat of sanction and enforcement is guaranteed through the state’s monopoly, non-state actors do not carry such threats. In the second place, political parties interact with other political parties in a number of different arenas: electoral campaign, public debates and in legislative debates.
Recently, political scientists have turned their attention to studying the responses of political parties to populist parties of various varieties (Heinze 2022). Building on work by Downs (2001), Meguid and Bale, Heinze (2022) has recently proposed an eight-fold categorization of responses to radical right populist parties, mainly focusing her study on the AfD. Heinze divides focuses on the Parliamentary arena and divides responses to the formal level and the policy level. Party political responses to radical right wing populist parties include excluding right wing populist parties, ad hoc toleration of these parties, legislative cooperation with the and executive cooperation with right wing populist parties. Policy responses include ignoring right wing populist policy proposals, defusing them, debating them and adopting them.
These options and their on-going and iterative nature give political parties great leeway to adjust their response to parties with ambiguously nefarious policy stances. This has been the situation in the case of the AfD, which after having failed to enter the federal Bundestag, has steadily received sufficient support to enter the Landtage of the various Länder. An overview of the responses of mainstream parties to the AfD reveals a mixed response to the party’s entry into the various Landtage (Heinze 2022). Some responses by mainstream parties were to exclude the AfD from what customarily would have been their right, such as by changing the Parliamentary rules so as to prevent the AfD from appointing a vice-president as happened after the elections in Thuringia and Rhineland-Palatinate, but at the same time mainstream political parties would cooperate with the AfD on an ad hoc basis on other Parliamentary business.
Much of this mixed pattern seems to be explained by the mainstream parties ignorance of the AfD and its nature. As explained by Heinze: “[a]t the beginning of the legislative periods, most parties did not know very much about the AfD’s positions, strategies, and parliamentary behavior. Instead, it took some time for them to learn about them and adapt their behavior.” (2022, 12). The AfD’s tendency to use insults in Parliament to inflame debates and to gain media attention caught mainstream parties by surprise. What became crucial then, is that mainstream parties gained the sense that the AfD was not interested in actual policy processes but rather in attracting controversy for the sake of media attention.
Clearly, German mainstream parties struggled in their response to the AfD because of the ambiguous nature of the AfD. In some sense the ambiguous nature of the AfD was its strength—other parties struggled to define effective courses of action against the party—in another sense it was the AfD’s weakness, namely once the other parties did figure out “the name of the game” they could invent effective counter-strategies.
A somewhat different example can be drawn from the treatment of FIDESZ MEPs and their membership of the EPP in the European Parliament. Here the story is that of a widely criticized (Kelemen 2017; Wolkenstein 2021) inaction and in particular refusal to suspend or evict FIDESZ from the group of MEPs until May 2021. Part of this reticence may be explained by the need of the EPP to retain FIDESZ votes in order to retain their status as largest grouping of MEPs in the EP. For at least the part of the EPP that would have liked to have expelled FIDESZ from the EPP, not being able to conclusively prove that their constitutional reforms pushed the country towards an authoritarian direction. This plausible deniability gave those who wanted to keep FIDESZ in the EPP sufficient clout.
Political parties engage each other in different fora in a variety of different manners which allows them to respond to ambiguously anti-democratic parties and their policy proposals in a multitude of ways. We can distinguish between those responses that target the party itself—ostracism, various forms of cooperation—and those that target the policies or ideas of populist parties. When it comes to responding to the party itself, other political parties are often very dependent on the ambiguously anti-democratic party revealing its true intentions. Engagement with the substantive policies of ambiguously anti-democratic parties, political parties stand in a special position to tackle these ideas. Often ambiguously anti-democratic parties have a rather limited number of policy positions, which are poorly framed but justifiable through acceptable political arguments. The delivery of these ideas often happens in a low register, accompanied with insults or sarcasm. Here, the special platform which other political parties have may give them the opportunity to challenge ambiguously anti-democratic parties. Their position as political parties, with everything that this entails in the different fora in which political parties contest one another, puts other political parties in a unique position to challenge the ideas of populist parties and to communicate the weakness of these to the electorate.
Research into the relationship between civil society and resistance to populism is still in its infancy (Arato and Cohen 2021). Nevertheless, it is clear that various civil society organizations are often involved in the upholding of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in a variety of ways. Unlike political parties, whose actions are primarily limited to the political arena, civil society acts in the society as a whole. Then, compared to political parties, which interact with ambiguously anti-democratic parties in different political fora usually by contesting ideas, civil society has a broader scope of action.
Boycotts, for example, allow civil society organizations to target operations of ambiguously anti-democratic parties. The campaign to not have private hotels and restaurants host meetings of the AfD illustrates this point (Laumond 2022). Unlike the state or other political parties, civil society commands resources that can affect all aspects of a party’s functioning. Where it would be unimaginable for a state to prohibit private service providers to not host gatherings of a particular, legal, political party, for civil society members to persuade the same private service providers to not host these gatherings either voluntarily or for fear of damage to their reputation seems more easily justifiable.
Protests, the second common way in which civil society organizations oppose ambiguously anti-democratic parties, can be directed at the party itself or at the ideas or policies the party is seen as advocating for. In this sense, this is similar to the way in which political parties may respond to ambiguously anti-democratic parties. But here, too, there are key differences. On the general level, protests may be directed against certain types of parties, for example against far-right parties or the far right in general, which then include parties which attempt to disguise their anti-democratic intentions. In the case of the AfD, for example, civil society opponents of the party seem to treat the AfD as a far-right party. Sometimes protests against the AfD are often framed as protests against the far right, sometimes they are framed as protests against particular policies of the AfD. (Laumond, forthcoming, 15) In these instances, the protests serve a dual purpose, one where they protest the object of protest as well as including the party within the scope of the far right. Protests may also be directed at different ideas associated with the party. In Italy the Sardines are an interesting protest movement which has sought to protest populism as a political style in general (Campo, forthcoming). Protests may also be directed at particular notion such as racism, which may be associated with the particular ambiguously anti-democratic party.
Like political parties, civil society relies to a great deal on its powers to persuade the public that a particular ambiguously anti-democratic party is indeed deserving of the people’s disapproval. In doing so civil society does not enjoy any special status within the constitutional scheme like the state or political parties but they enjoy greater flexibility in the type of action they can take in the form of not being constrained by what is appropriate for a constitutional state or political party. At the same time, civil society actors lack any formal status or privileges that would facilitate opposition to ambiguously anti-democratic parties, putting them in a formally weaker position than public authorities and political parties. Nevertheless, this may make them less constrained in their responses precisely because they do not hold so much power—a sort of reversal of “with great power comes great responsibility” to “with less power comes more freedom.”
Synergies between the different actors and charting a course between tolerant and intolerant modes of engaging
The first part of the paper presented a view of how ambiguously anti-democratic parties keep their anti-democratic ambitions hidden, the subsequent sections considered how the different ways in which different actors respond to ambiguously anti-democratic parties. This final section will consider how these different strengths may play out with respect to different threats that ambiguously anti-democratic parties may pose to the constitutional system and how these may affect a choice between tolerant and intolerant modes of engaging.
At this point the normative line of argument also becomes more important. Given how different actors can target different aspects of the functioning of ambiguously anti-democratic actors, it may be possible for different actors to use different, tolerant, means of responding. Since tolerance is a virtue in a democracy and since the ambiguity of the potentially anti-democratic parties means that many of the intolerant responses, such as party bans, will be undesirable as the burden of justification required by such significant rights restrictions cannot be met, democracies have good reason to prefer tolerant responses to ambiguously anti-democratic parties. As such responses, or combinations of responses, that capitalize on the strengths of each of the actors in order to enhance tolerant responses or to better justify intolerant ones.
Opposing different types of threats
Thus far I have said relatively little about the actual or potential threat posed by clandestinely anti-democratic parties. The potential damage that is being prevented is directly relevant to the kind of measure that the different actors will want to enact in response to ambiguously anti-democratic parties. More broadly speaking, it will also influence the broader framework and strategy for tackling ambiguously anti-democratic parties.
There has not been much discussion of what the problem with ambiguously anti-democratic parties is. Much of the literature appears to presume that the problem with ambiguously anti-democratic parties is that they may come into power and ultimately subvert the entire constitutional system. There is good reason for this, after all this problem is real and serious. The Weimar scenario is often invoked as the classic case in which an anti-democratic party employs democratic means to enter power and to render the political system into a dictatorship. Hungary provides a more recent example of such a turn of events, albeit in this case the government has succeeded in propping up the veneer of democratic government for far longer than the elsewhere. Similarly, in Poland, the PiS government has been able to undermine certain key institutions of democracy, most notably the judiciary, albeit less clandestinely as FIDESZ in Hungary.
There are also other dangers associated with populists who enter parliament or even government or simply attain a level of public support that requires the rest of the political system to respond to their potentially anti-democratic endeavours. In such a situation, an ambiguously anti-democratic party might be in a position to shift public opinion on a particular policy matter, e.g. immigration, or even push other parties to adopt policy positions that are counter to the values of the Constitution. These dangers are, at least arguably, more minor than ones that threaten the entire constitutional system. Nevertheless, they may pose serious threats to the constitutional system in general or certain parts of it specifically and erode parts of the constitutional system.
The state has the strongest tools to protect against these problems but they are also the most hemmed in by the strict norms that make it undesirable for it to use these tools against parties whose anti-democratic nature is sufficiently well hidden. Political parties and civil society are more flexible and may tackle ambiguously anti-democratic parties by challenging their policies in various fora by exposing their weaknesses and by persuading the public of their undesirability. Their success does, however, rest on the public being persuaded by political and civil society opposition, something which can be difficult to achieve.
Pace and duration of opposition
Ambiguously anti-democratic parties seem to be here to stay. While some of them are no doubt short-lived protest movements, many now go on to contest several electoral cycles, often increasing their support as they do so. This raises the question of whether the response to ambiguously anti-democratic parties can evolve over time to become more effective and if so how. In this sense again, political parties and civil society are more flexible and may adjust their response over time. They interact with the parties in real time, responding to their movements immediately. Their responses are also cumulative, in that by discrediting the initiatives of ambiguously anti-democratic parties, one could expect the public to be increasingly persuaded of their undesirability. The state is not only slower to begin responding it also does so in a piecemeal fashion, targeting each party once in a single definitive process.
In this context, the preferability of tolerant modes of engaging maybe particularly salient as over time ambiguously anti-democratic parties frequently seem to reveal their anti-democratic side. While intolerant responses may be more difficult to justify when a party’s democratic credentials are not in question (even where they have not been completely ascertained), as the party’s true nature slowly comes to light intolerant responses may become more justified. Mainstream parties and civil society play particularly important roles in this as they engage with ambiguously anti-democratic parties on a continuous basis, in the day to day of political interactions. Mainstream political parties by ignoring or engaging ambiguously anti-democratic parties may be able to push these parties either into irrelevance, to more extreme directions or to legitimize them. Today’s anti-democratic parties often employ opportunistic and poorly founded attacks on their political opponents, defusing these may require an anti-democratic party to escalate their attacks and expose the anti-democratic nature of their party. Civil society action may achieve similar results through protests by raising public awareness of the latent aspects of an ambiguously anti-democratic party. Over time, this may contribute to a better understanding of the nature of the party, potentially even their anti-democratic party. This in turn may either make the party less attractive to voters or make other responses more justifiable.
The three examples of ambiguously anti-democratic parties discussed in part 2 of this paper all demonstrate the importance of time in responding to their potentially anti-democratic efforts as over time all three parties have revealed their true colors. Democratic norms regulate how to engage with ambiguously anti-democratic parties but as different facets of their anti-democratic tendencies come to light, different actors appear to have different ways of responding to these, potentially taking wind out of the ambiguously anti-democratic party’s sails.
Building cooperation between the different actors
The fact that the three different types of actors can react differently to ambiguously anti-democratic parties would suggest that it should be worth considering situations where the strengths of one actor might outweigh the weaknesses of another and how all actors could bolster the system of the protection of democracy as whole. Focusing on potential inter-institutional cooperation may also bring insight into how to chart the course between tolerant and intolerant means of responding. As in the case of temporal issues related to responding to ambiguously anti-democratic parties, inter-actor dynamics may also be conducive to choosing between tolerant and intolerant responses. One such dynamic could be for the civil society to resist the attempted normalization of ambiguously anti-democratic parties to bring out their anti-democratic side as Laumond’s (2022, 18) analysis of the role that civil society organizations played on the decision by the intelligence agency to monitor the AfD reveals. The example also reveals that what exactly can be done by different actors is highly dependent on the local context depending.
Responding to ambiguously anti-democratic parties poses a particular challenge for actors opposing these parties. This paper has sought to outline this problem for different actors—the state, political parties and civil society—in line with different initiatives opposing populist parties in general and to highlight the different advantages and disadvantages that different actors in relation to two important criteria, the type of threat and the lapse of time in responding. It has also highlighted how different forms of tolerant and intolerant modes of responding can be combined when responding to different types of actions by ambiguously anti-democratic parties.
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I would like to thank Tore Vincents Olsen, Angela Bourne, Bénédicte Laumond, Anthoula Malkopoulou, Aleksandra Moroska-Bonkiewicz, Patrick Nitzschner, Franciszek Tyszka, Francesco Campo, Mathias Holst Nicolaisen, Katarzyna Domagała, and the anonymous reviewers for Comparative European Politics for comments on earlier versions of this paper. All errors remain mine.
This research was financed by the Carlsberg Foundation Grant CF20-0008.
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Tuovinen, J. Resisting ambiguously anti-democratic parties: What role for the state, political parties and civil society?. Comp Eur Polit 21, 834–847 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41295-023-00340-w