The Jerusalem Post
Many police, few protesters as far right enters Austrian government
Merkel takes wait-and-see approach to working with Kurz
VIENNA (Reuters) – Hundreds of police sealed off part of central Vienna against protesters on Monday as Austria became the only western European country with a far-right party in power, but demonstrations against the swearing-in ceremony proved small and largely peaceful.
The last time the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) entered the government in Austria, demonstrations were so big that the cabinet took a tunnel from the chancellery to the swearing-in rites at the president’s office across the street.
There was no need for that this time as, almost 18 years on and to a significantly more muted reaction, the country once again became an exception among its peers, but in a very different European political landscape.
Protests nearby drew only a fraction of the tens of thousands who gathered in 2000 – and criticism from across the continent has also been more restrained.
“We will certainly not be going underground to the Hofburg, but rather with our heads held high in the street,” FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache said earlier in an interview with regional newspapers. He was referring to the former imperial palace that houses the president’s office.
This time, police cleared a large area around the head-ofstate’s office, keeping several thousand protesters about 100 meters away in a nearby square. Chants could be heard as the new ministers from the FPO and the conservative People’s Party (OVP) crossed the street quietly to the ceremony.
OVP leader Sebastian Kurz, who is just 31, was made chancellor after his party won a parliamentary election two months ago, having campaigned with a hard line on immigration in a country that was swept up in Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015.
The two parties’ coalition deal hands control of much of Austria’s security apparatus to the FPO, which came third in the election with 26%. The Social Democrats came in second and have gone back into the opposition.
The agreement, under which Strache becomes vice chancellor, includes plans to cut public spending and taxes and curb benefits for refugees.
“I fear a total shift to the right, a hardening of the domestic political climate and incitement against outsiders,” said 69-year-old protester Wolfgang Pechlaner.
The FPO’s success made it an outsider in Europe in the 1990s when it was led by the late Joerg Haider, who drew controversy by praising Adolf Hitler’s employment policies.
Now it is one of many anti-establishment parties making electoral gains in Europe, capitalizing on frustration at mainstream politicians’ handling of the economy, security and immigration. Its allies and sister parties this year entered the German parliament and made the French presidential run-off.
Swearing in the new government on Monday, President Alexander Van der Bellen highlighted safeguards built into the coalition agreement.
“We have achieved a clear consensus that [involvement in] Europe or the European Union and continuity in our foreign policy as well as respecting our fundamental rights and freedoms are important fundamental principles,” he said.
That was a reference to the coalition having ruled out a referendum on EU membership, and to Austria’s support for EU sanctions against Russia despite the FPO’s pro-Moscow stance.
The FPO, founded in the 1950s by former Nazis, has backed away from calling for a vote on EU membership. It and Kurz’s conservatives want the EU to focus on fewer tasks, like securing external borders, and hand more powers back to member states.
“I would like good cooperation with our neighbor Austria. We will follow how the EU policy of Austria develops,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “Chancellor Kurz has the intention of being an active partner in Europe, and I am glad of that. We have lots of problems to solve in Europe.”
Other EU countries imposed sanctions on Austria in 2000 in protest at the FPO coming to power. There is no such action being taken this time.
Police said 1,500 officers were deployed in Vienna to deal with the protests, many of which converged near Van der Bellen’s office. People marched peacefully, carrying placards saying “Nazis out” and chanting “Strache is a fascist.”
Police put the number of protesters at 5,000-6,000 and said they had made three arrests. Organizers put the turnout as high as 10,000. By early afternoon, the main crowd was dispersing.
“Both parties, FPO and OVP, are forcing a shift to the right. I want to take a stand against that,” said Karina Neusteurer, a 31-year old nurse protesting with her young son.