Q&A: Bid to ban German far-right party
The German upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, has voted to ask the constitutional court to ban the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).
The Bundesrat represents the country's 16 constituent states and is entitled to launch such cases on its own.
The lower house and the government, which also have this power, have yet to decide whether or not to join the petition.
What are the NPD's aims?
The NPD is Germany's biggest far-right party. Founded in 1964, it espouses a racial type of nationalism and calls for Germany's borders of 1937 to be reinstated.
The domestic intelligence agency says the party seeks to overcome the current political system and has a favourable attitude towards historical Nazism.
The NPD obtained 1.5% of the vote in the 2009 general election and is not represented in the federal parliament. Between 2007 and 2011, its membership is thought to have fallen from about 7,200 to 6,300.
Why ban such a small party?
The NPD is weak nationally but has some regional strongholds, particularly in the east, where it is currently represented in two state assemblies.
"German democracy is now strong enough to live with neo-Nazism but Turkish greengrocers are not," the liberal daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said recently.
Some media commentators have also argued that it is intolerable for the state to have to give the NPD financial support under party funding rules.
The discovery in 2011 of a neo-Nazi cell which had killed a number of foreigners and a policewoman gave fresh impetus to the debate on a ban, although the NPD denies any links to the group.
Why is the government hesitating?
A previous, government-led attempt to have the NPD banned collapsed in 2003 over the presence of intelligence agency informants in the higher echelons of the party.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she wants to be sure that the fresh bid has every chance of success before her centre-right government joins it.
Some media commentators have warned against a ban, arguing that it would only drive NPD members underground or lead them to join other far-right parties.
"The party is clearly racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic, but a democracy that is ready to defend itself must be able to live with such a splinter group," a recent commentary in the conservative daily Die Welt said.
How would a ban be enacted?
The Bundesrat's decision launches a process which could take many months.
The first step will be for the Bundesrat to draw up a formal application to the constitutional court calling for the NPD to be declared unconstitutional and to be dissolved.
The upper house has also voted to ask the court to prohibit the creation of any successor organisations and to order the seizure of the party's assets.
The court will consider the application and the evidence submitted before making its ruling.
Would a ban be final?
Any decision to ban the party could be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.
Observers are divided over whether such an appeal would be likely to succeed.
Some have warned that the Strasbourg-based court would apply stricter criteria than the German constitutional court.
Others have argued that Germany's highest court would give detailed reasons for a ban which the European Court of Human Rights would find difficult to ignore.
"Party bans are in the first instance a matter for sovereign states" and therefore the fate of the NPD will "probably" be decided by a German ruling, the daily Der Tagesspiegel said recently.