Wel­come to Wels, fief of Aus­tria’s ‘nor­mal’ far-right

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

When Aus­tria’s far-right Free­dom Party re­cently launched its cam­paign for Sun­day’s snap elec­tions, the choice of lo­ca­tion was easy: Wels, the jewel in their crown. Aus­tria’s eighth-largest town has been run by the FPOe since its can­di­date An­dreas Rabl was elected mayor in 2015 at the height of Europe’s mi­grant cri­sis. The FPOe is hop­ing to repli­cate that suc­cess na­tion­wide in Sun­day’s vote as polls put it in sec­ond or third place with sup­port from roughly one in four vot­ers.

Party leader Heinz-Chris­tian Stra­che, 48, is then thought likely to be­come ju­nior coali­tion part­ner to the cen­tre-right Peo­ple’s Party (OeVP) of Se­bas­tian Kurz, 31. Like Rabl did in Wels, this will con­sign Chan­cel­lor Chris­tian Kern’s So­cial Democrats (SPOe), which with the OeVP has dom­i­nated na­tional pol­i­tics since 1945, to op­po­si­tion. For Rabl, a 45year-old lawyer, the party’s suc­cess in 60,000-strong Wels, the largest of around 30 places run by the FPOe, is proof that it is a “nor­mal party”. “We are not ex­treme or rad­i­cal,” Rabl told AFP. The party is about “prag­matic so­lu­tions” to is­sues like “re­duc­ing debt, cut­ting crime and re­gen­er­at­ing the town cen­trer”.

An ad­mirer of Jo­erg Haider, the FPOe’s charis­matic but con­tro­ver­sial leader from 1986-2000, Rabl has in­stalled se­cu­rity cam­eras in the town cen­ter and cut spend­ing in­clud­ing the may­oral chauf­feur. Reg­u­lar “stammtisch” meet­ings - the FPOe is keen on “direct democ­racy” - al­low lo­cals to vent their frus­tra­tions. With green and red cards they can “vote” on ques­tions like “Do you feel safe in your part of Wels?”


The FPOe is in gov­ern­ing coali­tions in two of Aus­tria’s nine states: Up­per Aus­tria home to Wels - and Bur­gen­land. Last year its can­di­date came close to win­ning the pres­i­dency. Founded by for­mer Nazis in the 1950s, Stra­che has worked hard in re­cent years to detox­ify the FPOe but the party is still fiercely na­tion­al­ist. It wants im­mi­gra­tion stopped “un­til fur­ther no­tice”, asy­lum to be tem­po­rary and a new min­istry for Aus­trian “core cul­ture”.

Tidy Wels, part of north­ern Aus­tria’s in­dus­trial heart­land, is not some rust belt waste­land. Un­em­ploy­ment is just 5.1 per­cent. Around one in three in­hab­i­tants was born abroad, how­ever, mostly in the for­mer Yu­goslavia and Turkey. The 1970s Noitz­muehle hous­ing es­tate, where many live, is grotty. Ste­fan Ganz­ert, 26, an SPOe ac­tivist, says that the new ar­rivals were long seen as “cheap la­bor” and in­te­gra­tion ef­forts came too late. “We would do things dif­fer­ently to­day,” he told AFP. “There are far too many (im­mi­grants),” said re­tiree Eva, who used to work in a nearby lemon­ade fac­tory. “They get away with ev­ery­thing.” No Ger­man, no flat

A ma­jor boost to the FPOe came in 2015 when hun­dreds of thou­sands of mi­grants, many flee­ing Syria, passed through Aus­tria. Since then, al­most 150,000 peo­ple have claimed asy­lum in Aus­tria, mak­ing this wealthy coun­try of 8.75 mil­lion peo­ple one of the con­ti­nent’s high­est re­cip­i­ents per capita. The FPOe, to­gether with tabloid news­pa­pers, has not held back in stok­ing fears about the refugees. Wochen­blick, a lo­cal news­pa­per re­port­edly linked to the FPOe full of scare sto­ries about Mus­lims and men­da­cious main­stream jour­nal­ists, is avail­able in a box out­side Wels town hall. Rabl re­peats sev­eral times that com­bat­ing im­mi­grants’ “re­luc­tance to in­te­grate” is one of his big­gest con­cerns.

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