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