Aus­tria far-right and left happy with re­gional union

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Cam­paign­ers for Aus­tria’s Greens-backed pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Alexan­der Van der Bellen are hav­ing a hard time in Bur­gen­land state, where the farright has carved out a cozy al­liance with the So­cial Democrats, one of the coun­try’s two main par­ties. The SPOe, which grew out of a Marx­ist worker’s move­ment and re­mains close to the unions, broke a ma­jor taboo last year by en­ter­ing into a coali­tion with the pop­ulist Free­dom Party (FPOe).

As a re­sult, the FPOe’s pres­i­den­tial poster boy Nor­bert Hofer is ex­pected to eas­ily beat his ri­val on De­cem­ber 4 in the eastern re­gion, on Hun­gary’s border. The 45-year-old scored over 60 per­cent in Bur­gen­land in the first run-off in May, which was an­nulled over pro­ce­dural ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties. “Some lo­cal SPOe may­ors are sup­port­ing Van der Bellen... but there are many who don’t openly cam­paign for Hofer but will vote for him,” Bur­gen­land Greens MP Regina Petrik told AFP in a re­cent interview.

Bur­gen­land’s po­lit­i­cal mar­riage is “the first great tear in the red bar­ri­cade put up in 1986” when Franz Vran­itzky broke off the short-lived coali­tion with the FPOe after he was elected chan­cel­lor, ac­cord­ing to Aus­trian news magazine Pro­fil. It is also a clear sign of both the seem­ingly un­stop­pable rise of the FPOe and the crisis plagu­ing the rul­ing es­tab­lish­ment, made up of the SPOe and the con­ser­va­tive Peo­ple’s Party. Like else­where in Europe and the US, dis­grun­tled vot­ers pun­ished the tra­di­tional par­ties by knock­ing their two pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates out of the first round in April.

In Eisenstadt, Bur­gen­land’s small cap­i­tal of 14,000 peo­ple, the SPOe sees the union as a so­lu­tion to the weak­en­ing of the Aus­trian left. “On the one hand there’s ide­ol­ogy, on the other prag­ma­tism. Ide­ol­ogy would have even­tu­ally pushed us into the op­po­si­tion,” SPOe Bur­gen­land chief Hel­mut Schus­ter told AFP.

His party lost a whop­ping six points at the re­gional polls in May 2015 de­spite win­ning the race, drop­ping to 42 per­cent. The SPOe de­cided to skip its con­ser­va­tive part­ner, which had come se­cond, and in­stead turn to the third-placed FPOe to form a re­gional gov­ern­ment. “It’s a way of win­ning back vot­ers who left us for the FPOe by mak­ing them a new of­fer,” Schus­ter said. The move had been care­fully planned. Ahead of the bal­lot, the SPOe had al­ready gauged mem­bers’ opin­ions about a pos­si­ble far-right al­liance.

“Close to 90 per­cent were in fa­vor,” ac­cord­ing to Geza Mol­nar, head of FPOe Bur­gen­land. Ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the two par­ties went smoothly, he said. Hans Niessl, who has led the SPOe Bur­gen­land for more than 15 years, “pri­or­i­tized se­cu­rity and the job mar­ket, with a po­lit­i­cal course very sim­i­lar to ours,” Mol­nar told AFP.

Those who see a “taboo break” in the coali­tion are mainly “elite So­cial Democrats” from out­side Bur­gen­land. “We’ve cre­ated a pos­i­tive im­age on a lo­cal level, with goal-ori­ented per­son­al­i­ties show­ing that they want to work to­gether,” he added. The SPOe also hails what it calls an “ex­traor­di­nar­ily good col­lab­o­ra­tion” with the FPOe, high­light­ing among other things the suc­cess­ful man­age­ment of tens of thou­sands of mi­grants that trekked through the state last year.

Model for the fu­ture?

Eisenstadt res­i­dents seem happy with the ar­range­ment. “It’s good that the par­ties are able to sit around the same ta­ble,” said a cou­ple in their 30s, who did not want to be iden­ti­fied. “You can’t re­ally say that the FPOe’s pres­ence is be­ing felt on a re­gional level.” Petrik agrees that the im­pact has been sub­tle but warns that therein lies the danger. “The at­mos­phere and the rhetoric have changed, the words are no longer those of the SPOe,” the Greens MP noted.

She crit­i­cizes the heavy fo­cus on se­cu­rity in Bur­gen­land, where crime sta­tis­tics were al­ready the low­est in Aus­tria long be­fore last year’s elec­tion. And yet po­lice num­bers are be­ing stocked up, giv­ing peo­ple “the false im­pres­sion that they’re liv­ing in an in­se­cure world, which isn’t true”, said Petrik. De­spite her reser­va­tions, the Bur­gen­land ex­am­ple could be­come a model for Aus­tria’s next gov­ern­ment.

The far-right, which con­sis­tently leads opin­ion polls, is tipped to win the sched­uled 2018 gen­eral elec­tion. The SPOe, led by Chan­cel­lor Chris­tian Kern, re­cently launched talks to de­fine “cri­te­ria” for coali­tion part­ners. Al­though the FPOe has not been ex­plic­itly named, they’re def­i­nitely on ev­ery­one’s mind-much to Mol­nar’s de­light. “Our al­liance has helped erase the prej­u­dices to­ward the FPOe,” he said. —AFP

VI­ENNA: In this May 20, 2016 file photo Nor­bert Hofer can­di­date for pres­i­den­tial elec­tions of Aus­tria’s Free­dom Party, FPOE, and HeinzChris­tian Stra­che, from left, head of Aus­tria’s Free­dom Party, FPOE, look out at sup­port­ers dur­ing the fi­nal elec­tion cam­paign event. —AP

PARIS: Vin­cent Martinez, one the de­fen­dants, speaks to press after three for­mer Air France em­ploy­ees on trial for rip­ping com­pany ex­ec­u­tives’ shirts dur­ing a dis­pute over lay­offs were found guilty in a case that high­lighted the coun­try’s some­times vi­o­lent la­bor re­la­tions. —AFP

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