Germany's domestic intelligence agency is actively monitoring a regional branch of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a security source said on Tuesday, as a possible prelude to placing the party under surveillance nationally.
The source said the agency had classified the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt, the eastern state where it is the biggest opposition party, as a "suspicious entity" representing a potential threat to the democratic order.
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That designation, by the regional branch of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), gives agents more powers for surveillance, including tapping the party's communications and scrutinising its funding - potentially dealing its fortunes a blow in an election year.
Oliver Kirchner, leader of the AfD faction in the Saxony-Anhalt parliament, said the BfV had not informed the AfD about any such decision.
"It will come as no surprise to us if this is true," said Kirchner. "For years the BfV has been used as an establishment to silence critical voices."
Six German states, including Saxony-Anhalt where the AfD is the second-biggest party, will elect new regional parliaments this year, and a national election will take place in September.
The classification would not prevent the party, the third biggest in Germany's Bundestag lower house of parliament and the official opposition, from contesting either ballot.
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Saxony-Anhalt Greens lawmaker Sebastian Striegel said he did not expect the decision to hit the AfD's election chances in its heartlands in Germany's former Communist East.
"People voted for the AfD because of their far-right character before, and they will continue to do so," Striegel told Reuters.
Two years ago the BfV classified the AfD as a "case to investigate" to determine whether the anti-immigrant party's political platform was in breach of the constitution.
Should the review yield evidence that the party's policies breach constitutional safeguards against extremism, it could place the whole party under surveillance.
Last week, the AfD filed a petition with the Cologne administrative court seeking to block any such decision.
The AfD is ostracized at the national and regional level by political opponents who accuse it of downplaying crimes committed by the Nazis and harboring racist views.
One prominent AfD lawmaker has criticized Berlin's Holocaust memorial as a "monument of shame" and another dismissed the Hitler era as "just bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history".
The party gained voters nationally in a reaction to the open-door policy on migration that Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted in 2015, but support has slipped back to around 10% during the coronavirus pandemic.
The domestic intelligence agency has previously placed a radical branch of the party called Der Fluegel, or The Wing, under surveillance.