Austria’s Far Right Poised for Gains

Sylvia Westall, Reuters, September 23, 2008

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Austria is one of the European Union’s most prosperous nations, but with its economy slowing and prices rising, the election campaigns are not just focused on Vienna’s cafes and concert halls.

Its public housing projects, home to one third of voters, are the battleground for governing Social Democrats and opposition far-right parties in a campaign dwelling on economic worries, resurgent inflation and—for some—immigration.

The projects, some going back as far as the 1920s and many named after famous European labor leaders and Social Democrats, symbolize the “Red Vienna” despised by rightists who say the left allowed too many immigrants to secure Austrian citizenship without even learning German.

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Polls predict the populist far-right Freedom Party headed by Heinz-Christian Strache, and a splinter party, Alliance for Austria’s Future founded by Freedom’s former leader Joerg Haider, could mop up around a quarter of votes between them—a 10-point gain from two years ago.

With Austria’s main parties—the Social Democrats and center-right People’s Party—looking set to win a combined share of less than 60 percent of the vote for the first time since World War Two, either could be a coalition partner.

TENSIONS

Freedom—which as part of government in 2000 earned Austria rebukes from fellow EU states worried about the party’s anti-immigrant agenda—has softened its stance, coming closer to the center-left with calls for measures to ease the pain of inflation, and slogans such as “Social, not socialist!”

But it still demands a halt to immigration and a ministry for repatriating foreigners: “If you want an apartment, all you need is to be wearing a headscarf,” Strache said earlier this month, accusing Social Democrats of making public housing more accessible to immigrants than to native Austrians.

Similar tensions are rippling across other parts of Europe as a slowdown in growth and increasing unemployment and inflation take hold, but Austria—whose 8.4 million population includes about 1.4 million people with an immigrant background many of Yugoslav or Turkish origin—has long been sensitized.

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A recent poll by the GfK market research group showed that after Britain, Austrians were the most concerned about immigration and integration in Europe, with one in five rating it as a top worry.

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The GfK poll showed inflation was the biggest worry for Europeans, including Austrians—ahead of jobs, crime and immigration.

Austrian inflation reached 3.9 percent in June, its highest level in 15 years, and has eased only slightly since. As economic growth slowed to 0.4 percent in the second quarter from 0.6 percent in the previous three months, that is hitting consumers’ purses.

RING TONES

Freedom polls strongly in Vienna’s grittier working class districts. It captured 20 percent in worker neighborhoods in the 2006 election, compared with 14 percent in Vienna overall and 11 percent nationwide.

Its broader approach also seems to be insulating the party from a possible backlash of fear among immigrants: some dismiss the rightists’ association of foreigners with problems.

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