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Austrian Elections Show Recurring Theme in New Europe

Stephen Piggott • Oct 08, 2008

Last week, elections in Austria produced a result that is becoming an all too familiar one in Europe, namely large percentages of the vote going to far right parties. In Austria the 2 main far-right parties, the Alliance for the Future of Austria, and the Freedom party won a combined 29% of the votes. Combined, the far-right parties will have 55 seats, just 2 less than the 57 won by the Social Democrats. Most political analysts believe that the reason for the right-wing gains is because of the mistrust of the current government but this is not the only major reason. Austria, like many EU countries is dealing with an immigration “crisis.” As in most countries, immigrants are essential to the Austrian economy and everyday functions of the country but Austria’s citizens are scared of the Other.

The far-right in Austria is dominated by 2 men, Heinz-Christian Strache and Jorg Haider. Both men were part of Austria’s Freedom party but Haider left to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria in 2005. When Haider left, Strache became Freedom party chairman. Haider is no stranger to controversy and is open about his pro-Nazi views. He has called concentration camps “punishment camps” and was forced to resign as governor of the Austrian state of Carinthia in 1989 after publicly praising the employment policies of Nazi Germany.

Strache however has learned from the mistakes of Haider and is more subtle with his comments. His views are masked in his public speeches by vagueness while in the background he continues to push an anti-EU and anti-immigrant agenda. A proposed ban on the building of new mosques to prevent the spread of Islam in Austria is just one example of his xenophobia.

In Austria, the youth is a target for the far right parties. Austria is the first country in the EU to set its voting age at 16. The Freedom party have argued that schools are full of immigrants who often beat up Austrians and in a video I watched on BBC, two Austrian teenagers mimicked the Freedom Party’s stance. This argument however is devoid of hard facts. According to Austria’s last census taken in 2001, 92% of the countries population was Austrian. More recent figures suggest that close to 10% of the countries population are foreigners but 10% is still a relatively small number. Looking at these figures makes it very hard to argue that Austrian schools are full of immigrants if less than 10% of the population are non-Austrian. This data however has not stopped Heinz-Christian Strache from visiting nightclubs, popular among 16-18 year olds in an effort to gain their support.

Both Strache and Haider have been at odds with each other since Haider left Strache in 2005 to create his own party and many pundits believe that both men cannot form an alliance in government. But the claim that both parties cannot work together is another distraction from the major issue at hand. The main point that everyone is missing (or ignoring) in this debate is the fact that one third of Austrians have extreme right views. If we transferred that figure to the United States that would mean that one third of Americans or about 100,000,000 people had extreme right views. How can these parties get away with gaining almost 30% of the vote you may ask? The answer is that Austrians don’t believe that these parties are extreme. Anti-immigrant views have become the norm in Austria and most continental Europe and little is being done to counter it. The sad truth is that all nations rely on immigrants for a number of reasons and instead of immigration being met with optimism it is far too often met with xenophobia.

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