Win or lose, Aus­trian far right’s views have en­tered govern­ment

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Even if Aus­tria’s far-right party fails to en­ter govern­ment af­ter Oct 15 elec­tions, its views on im­mi­gra­tion al­ready have. The anti-Is­lam Free­dom Party’s (FPO) pop­u­lar­ity reached new heights dur­ing Europe’s mi­gra­tion cri­sis in 2015 when it de­nounced the cen­trist govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to throw open Aus­tria’s borders to hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees and other mi­grants. It ran first in opin­ion polls for more than a year, with sup­port of more than 30 per­cent, and its can­di­date came close to win­ning last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Now the party has slipped to sec­ond or third while the So­cial Democrats and con­ser­va­tive Peo­ple’s Party (OVP) - the two par­ties in govern­ment, which have dom­i­nated post-war pol­i­tics - have moved to­wards the far right’s po­si­tions. Most of the mi­grants and refugees car­ried on to Ger­many in 2015 but 90,000, or more than 1 per­cent of Aus­tria’s pop­u­la­tion, stayed and sought asy­lum. The two cen­trist par­ties have since promised to make sure this never hap­pens again. “Both govern­ment par­ties are some­thing like FPO light,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst An­ton Pelinka said. “They are not ex­actly the same as the FPO but the cross­over has be­come very fluid.”

A spat with Italy on July 4 about con­trol of their shared bor­der has high­lighted the shift. In the past month Italy has asked other EU coun­tries to help it cope with a surge in the num­ber of mi­grants reach­ing its Mediter­ranean shores from Africa. Con­cerned about an­other in­flux, Aus­trian De­fense Min­is­ter Hans Peter Doskozil said he was prepar­ing to take ac­tion if they headed to­wards Aus­tria.

In an in­ter­view with Aus­tria’s top-sell­ing tabloid, he said he ex­pected bor­der con­trols at the Bren­ner Pass, a gate­way for Italy to north­ern Europe, “very soon”. The ar­ti­cle added that 750 sol­diers and four ar­mored ve­hi­cles were avail­able to se­cure the bor­der if needed. Italy re­acted fu­ri­ously, sum­mon­ing Aus­tria’s am­bas­sador to Rome be­fore Doskozil and Chan­cel­lor Chris­tian Kern, both So­cial Democrats, backed away from the com­ments. But the re­marks are the lat­est ex­am­ple of how Aus­tria’s two cen­trist par­ties are try­ing to beat the far right at its own game. “The So­cial Democrats and the OVP are in a kind of race to see who can take is­sues away from the Free­dom Party,” Pelinka said. “They are hurt­ing the Free­dom Party with this. Pre­cisely be­cause of this, it has fallen in the polls.”

The OVP and its 30-year-old leader, For­eign Min­is­ter Se­bas­tian Kurz, have taken the lead in opin­ion polls. Kurz has fo­cused on im­mi­gra­tion and in­te­gra­tion since tak­ing over as party leader in May, call­ing for mi­grants res­cued in the Mediter­ranean to be taken to Africa rather than Europe. His po­si­tions and lan­guage are some­times so close to the FPO’s that the far right party has ac­cused him of pla­gia­rism.

When Kurz said last month that he wanted to do away with Mus­lim kinder­gartens, which he and the FPO de­scribe as breed­ing grounds for “par­al­lel so­ci­eties” at odds with the rest of Aus­tria, the FPO said it had been mak­ing the same de­mand for years, and Kurz lacked the “will and courage” to carry it out. Chan­cel­lor Kern’s So­cial Democrats (SPO) have op­posed Kurz on that is­sue, but Kern put for­ward a plan on Wed­nes­day to “take back con­trol of mi­gra­tion” and cut ar­rivals from Africa sharply by 2020. He also over­saw a law-an­dorder drive this year that in­cluded a ban on Mus­lim face-cover­ing veils.

Kern’s em­pha­sis has, how­ever, been more on em­ploy­ment and the econ­omy. He has pushed for mea­sures that would favour lo­cal work­ers over for­eign ri­vals, in­clud­ing a tax break for firms that fill newly cre­ated posts with peo­ple reg­is­tered as un­em­ployed in Aus­tria. While Kern’s ap­proach is more tar­geted than the sort of na­tional pref­er­ence the far right calls for, it is test­ing the lim­its of free­dom of move­ment un­der Euro­pean Union law, and the mea­sure has yet to be ap­proved by Brus­sels.

Even though some stigma around the FPO it­self re­mains, it has found new ac­cep­tance within the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment. The cen­ter-left SPO has opened the door to form­ing a na­tional coali­tion with the far right, lift­ing a self-im­posed ban of 30 years. Par­ties rarely ob­tain a ma­jor­ity in Aus­tria’s pro­por­tional elec­toral sys­tem, and al­most al­ways need a coali­tion part­ner to form a govern­ment. The SPO and OVP have gov­erned to­gether for most of the past 70 years but they are now at log­ger­heads, mak­ing them less likely to join forces again.

“The (FPO’s) chances of join­ing the govern­ment as a ju­nior part­ner are the high­est they’ve been in more than 10 years, but the chances of com­ing first and se­cur­ing the chan­cel­lor’s job are very, very slim,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Thomas Hofer said. —Reuters

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