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Austrian voters concerned about immigration, Islam

VIENNA: Supporters of the Austrian Chancellor and leader of the Social Democrats (SPOe) Christian Kern attend the party’s last election rally on the eve of the Austrian parliamentary elections yesterday. _ AFP

VIENNA: Wrapping up a bruising political campaign season, Austrian political parties were counting down to an election today that could turn the country to the right amid voter concerns over immigration and Islam. The vote is coming a year ahead of schedule after squabbles led to the breakup last spring of the coalition government of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party. A total of 16 parties are vying for 183 seats in the national parliament and will be chosen by Austria’s 6.4 million eligible voters.


But less than a dozen parties have a chance of getting seats.  The People’s Party, which has shifted from centrist to right-wing positions, is leading in the pre-vote polls after an image make-over by its leader, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz.  Austria’s traditionally right-wing, anti-migrant Freedom Party is expected to come in second and the center-left Social Democrats are thought to be trailing in third place. Others that may clear the 4 percent hurdle needed to get into parliament seats are the Greens, the liberal NEOS, and Liste Pilz, led by former Greens politician Peter Pilz.


Favoring the People’s and Freedom parties is distrust of migrants and Muslims among many Austrian voters. The 2015 influx of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war in Syria and poverty elsewhere into the EU’s prosperous heartland left Austria with nearly 100,000 new and mostly Muslim migrants. That has fueled fears Austria’s traditional Western and Christian culture is in danger. As a result, voters are receptive to the anti-migrant platforms of both the People’s Party and the Freedom Party.


Although the Social Democrats have come either first or second in elections since World War II, voters are now more receptive to calls for tougher migration rules than the party’s focus on social justice. “I’m of course pro-migration and that many people can come to us, but at some point we have to stop,” student Janine Leitner, 21 said yesterday in Vienna.


The Social Democrats are also fighting charges of dirty campaigning after Israeli political adviser Tal Silberstein posted on Facebook suggesting that People’s Party head Kurz was anti-Semitic. Silberstein has been fired and insists Social Democratic Chancellor Christian Kern knew nothing about the postings.


Kern says his party will go into the opposition if it does not win today. With a handful of other parties struggling to just get into parliament, the most likely post-vote scenario is a People’s Party-Freedom Party coalition that would shift the government significantly to the right. But other coalitions are possible, depending on the results of today’s vote. While Europe’s centrist governments could view a rightward shift with some concern, architect Bernhard Egelmuller didn’t think there would be any major negative international fallout if the Freedom Party does join the next Austrian government.


Traditional parties


For Verena Dunst, veteran Social Democrat in the government of Austria’s Burgenland province, working with the far right for the past two years has not just been business as usual – it has been better. “I have to honestly tell you, now it fits,” she said, praising the Freedom Party (FPO) for breaking through the entrenched interests of traditional parties. “I have achieved much more in two years than my predecessors … in many years.”


The Burgenland coalition government of the Social Democrats (SPO) and the FPO has cut the number of tourism associations to around 20 from more than 100, axed an expensive administrative level in its education system and streamlined the management of public hospitals and utilities. There is a similar story from the other side of the centrist spectrum. In Upper Austria, the conservatives rule in coalition with the FPO, suggesting a national coalition with the far right after Sunday’s election would be nowhere near unworkable.


Working with the Freedom Party has sped up the decision making processes, said People’s Party (OVP) Governor Thomas Stelzer, referring to their two years of coalition partnership and dismissing concerns over its Nazi past. “On the one hand that’s because we have a well thought through government program. On the other hand, it works very well on a human level,” said Stelzer.


And while of course not all view the prospect so favorably, the FPO has its best chance in a decade of entering national government, either with the OVP or with the Social Democrats after Sunday’s parliamentary vote. It has been in power at the national level before, with the Social Democrats from 1983 to 1986 and triggering European Union sanctions against Austria when it went into government with the conservatives in 2000. Both combinations currently exist at the next level down in two of the highly federalized country’s nine provinces – partnerships which would be unthinkable in any other western European country.


Collegiate spirit


If those coalition deals are anything to go by, a fresh power-sharing agreement on a national level could be reached in a matter of weeks and without ideological trench warfare, lawmakers in Upper Austria and Burgenland provinces suggest. Upper Austria is one of country’s three provinces that introduced a cut in basic social services for newcomers to reduce migration, a move that OVP leader and frontrunner in Sunday’s election Sebastian Kurz wants to introduce nationwide.


Burgenland’s Dunst said the FPO’s independence from certain interest groups has helped to push through reforms, whereas the OVP’s strong ties to associations such as the Farmers’ Alliance, has stalled projects for fear of alienating core supporters. “If a wild deer for example feeds on something it shouldn’t on nearby farmland, the ranger, in whose area this happens, has to pay up. I wanted to protect the local ranger,” Dunst said about changing the law. “With the OVP, the (new) hunting law would not have been decided,” she said. “(The FPO) did break open encrusted clientele politics.”


Dunst’s previous experience of 15 years working with the conservatives has been the pattern in the country: The two parties have dominated Austria’s politics for more than half a century, establishing deep-rooted loyalties with business and workers’ associations.


But the collegiate spirit of working with FPO officials comes up a lot in the Upper Austrian capital Linz and in Eisenstadt – in contrast to unprecedented mudslinging between the two traditional parties ahead of Sunday’s vote. “If we have something to moan about, we do it internally, not in public. Otherwise, you can see on the national level where you end up,” Governor Stelzer said. – Reuters


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