Growing concern about rise of far-right in Austria

Chairman of the Austrian Peoples party, OVP, Reinhold Mitterlehner

As Austria moves closer to forming a government between the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OVP) led by Sebastian Kurz and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), many across Europe expressed concern about the normalisation of far-right politics.
Tense elections in Austria in October saw the OVP secure victory with 31.5% of the vote, ahead of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO), which had 26.9% of the vote, and the FPO, with 26% of the vote.
A coalition between the OVP’s 62 MPs and FPO’s 51 MPs would be enough to form a right-wing government. A previous OVP-FPO coalition led Austria from 2000-05 but did not involve FPO figures taking senior government positions. The European Union imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria — the first imposed on a member state — objecting to the presence of the far-right party.
The FPO was established in Austria in the 1950s by former Nazis. Its first leader, Anton Reinthaller, was a former SS officer and the party has consistently pursued a pro-nationalist, far-right, anti-immigration policy. The OVP, led by Kurz, who could become the world’s youngest leader, is a Christian conservative party that pursues a centre-right agenda.
The question analysts are asking is: Will the OVP pull the far-right FPO towards the centre or will we see the centre-right party’s conservative policies and views co-opted by a surging far-right populist message?
“The test… is who will emerge triumphant in this potential coalition: the traditional centre-right or the new populist rebellion. The outcome will serve as a road map for the rest of Europe,” said Peter Rough, a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, writing in Foreign Policy.
Media reports stated that talks were progressing and the two parties have found much to agree on regarding issues such as immigration and the economy. Both parties have said they would cut benefits for migrants and introduce a 5-year residency rule to curb welfare for EU nationals.
The new government would be expected to take a harder line towards the European Union. Provincial governors have drawn up a 33-point paper on the country’s relationship with the bloc.
With the FPO negotiating with the OVP as an “equal partner,” there are fears that Kurz could adopt some of the far-right party’s policies as the cost of an alliance. “No one should think we’re going to take it easy on the OVP,” FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache assured supporters.
The FPO had called for a “minus immigration policy” during the election campaign, saying that Austria should reduce net immigration to less than zero. It called for legislation that would make it easier for the government to shut down mosques and Islamic organisations.
During the election campaign, Kurz called for the state to close kindergartens run by Muslim providers, fearing the spread of “political Islam” to young children in what analysts viewed as an attempt by the centre-right party to win far-right voters.
This is a dangerous gamble that both centre-right and centre-left parties have lost in the past when seeking to form coalition governments with radical partners.
“By pushing politics more and more to the right, they will have only one choice left: stay somewhat true to their (own) ideological core and face the rage of the radicalised electorate or give them what they want and become a radical right party,” warned Cas Mudde, researcher at the Centre for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo in the Guardian.
With coalition talks ongoing, the focus has been on superficial issues. During the official opening of Austria’s parliament, the FPO’s 51 MPs did not wear their usual blue cornflower boutonniere — a symbol associated with Nazism — opting instead for edelweiss, a white-and-yellow Alpine flower.
The blue cornflower had been considered controversial at it was used as a secret sign of support for the banned Nazi party in the 1930s. FPO MPs were strongly criticised for wearing the blue cornflower at previous parliamentary openings.
The edelweiss stands for “bravery and love,” Strache said. Outside parliament, however, protesters carried placards warning: “Fascism wears many colours.”
Following a controversial far-right “gallows” protest in Poland and an attack on a mosque in Warsaw, many said far-right views are becoming increasingly entrenched in Europe.
A demonstration in Vienna involved 3,000 protesters forming a “chain of light” to protest the FPO being included in government but few said they believe such demonstrations will make any difference against a rising tide of right-wing nativism.
“(The shift to the right) has become a European trend… It’s no longer just an Austrian issue and that’s why it is not that controversial any longer,” protester Juergen Pucher told Reuters.
Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.
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