Austria far-right and left happy with regional union
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