Austria far-right in panic attack after migrants protests

Image copyright EPA Image caption Police called an end to anti-immigration marches after protesters ransacked a courthouse

After an unprecedented effort to discredit refugee policy across Europe, far-right nationalists in Austria have been sent into panic-attack mode.

Ahead of a parliamentary election in three weeks’ time, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) is nursing terrible anti-immigrant flu.

It wants its core support – the 50,000 odd eastern European immigrants, mainly from the Balkans and Poland – to return to the polls and regain power.

Once the most popular party in Austria – before the FP spent the last three years demonising migrants and the other establishment parties – it now languishes in the shadow of leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

He has been likened to Vlad the Impaler, and people have put “sinister” stickers on him. Yet Mr Strache is still neck and neck with the Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, in the polls.

And even if he were to win the election, and Mr Kurz were to quit, both he and Mr Strache would have to unify to form a government.

‘Soccer roots’

Image copyright AFP Image caption The far-right and far-left in Austria are very different parties

But it is not just the many voters from Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia who are reluctant to pick up the phone to call the FP.

Voters in Vienna, where 1,500 migrants were expelled last year, are turning their back on the party.

“They say that it was a scam, it was invented,” said car dealership owner Luca Zurbriggen, 28, adding that “my upbringing is soccer, not politics”.

And one of the mums of youngish immigrants, Inez, adds: “I voted for the FP, then I didn’t vote at all. The FP used to be my favourite party, now I’ve lost my enthusiasm.”

Mr Strache’s own polling rating has slid from 30% to 18% since the summer.

In the aftermath of the attacks on the embassies of Finland and Sweden, the party drew attention to its concerns over asylum seekers from Finland – which has some of the strictest asylum policies in Europe.

Image copyright CEN Image caption Sebastian Kurz has already fallen foul of the Freedom Party

Meanwhile, new voters seem to be flocking to a new left-wing populist party, Popular Front.

“I don’t think there was anything missing from our programme,” said party leader Andreas Franz. “If I was the [FPO] leader, I’d go to those immigrants already, get to know them, let them know about our plans, get them engaged, and the Freedom Party will pay the price.”

It is a surprise turn of events because the FPO is also widely perceived as the party that has done the most to undermine integration policy.

Far-right activists are actively trying to paint migrants as animals and call into question the authenticity of Austrian citizenship.

Four years ago the party was criticised by the UN for making clear its “fear of foreigners” and for abandoning human rights.

At the Vienna press conference where he announced a manifesto of fake information, Mr Strache refused to say he was happy to accept the existence of foreigners.

Crises loom ahead

But at its other meeting – also in Vienna – FPO activists held up a banner stating: “Choose between fear and openness.”

It was aimed squarely at migrants and immigrants.

On Monday, about 700 refugees were reported to have attended a rally in Vienna.

There were police at the event and it passed off peacefully. But a day later, anti-immigration militants, including a coalition of far-right and far-left groups, broke into a court.

A youth club called for immigrants to have an “appreciation day”. They burned down Turkish flags and intimidated immigrants before setting on fire about 30 activists from Amnesty International and Solidarity with Victims of Extreme Violence.

Earlier, tens of thousands of migrants marched in Vienna. They were unified by their anger against migrants and wanted a “clean break” from Europe.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Sebastian Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache have already fallen foul of the Freedom Party

Is there a deliberate strategy behind the rallies?

Mr Strache promised last week to “launch a massive campaign of hate propaganda”.

At the same time, the FPO’s hatred of migrants is opening up a strange and potent alliance of support between people who usually live in disarray and misery and people who wish to build walls and deport people.

On Wednesday, the far-right party’s leaders are meeting with Sebastian Kurz. If there are new checks in migrant policy

Leave a Comment