Austria's move to the right appears unstoppable

Austria's move to the right appears unstoppable

4 min read
09 November, 2017
In-depth: The return of neo-Nazi parties to the centre stage in Hitler's birthplace should be no surprise, writes Emran Feroz.
Muslims and refugees are the two principal targets of Austria's resurgent far-right [AFP]

Last month's legislative elections in Austria might change the country's political landscape once and forever.

While the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) emerged as the largest party in the National Council, winning 62 of 183 seats, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) made huge gains, finishing as third with 51 seats.

The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), for years the country's strongest party, leading the government, was dealt huge losses and won just received 52 seats.

No third party has come this close to the two traditional governing parties during the decades since the Second World War as the Freedom Party.

It is an open secret that the Freedom Party is not just right-wing populist, as they are sometimes described, but extremely right-wing - with many neo-Nazi and fascist elements. Many leading figures of the party are well-known for their connections with neo-Nazi groups and right-wing extremist organisations and media outlets.

Although many Austrians have long been aware of this, it seems that it did not deter them from voting for the far-right and all it stands for.

Those targeted by the Freedom Party for years - mainly Muslims, migrants and refugees - cannot understand the situation in their country.

"It's surreal. Literally everyone knows that these people are Nazis. But now they could become part of the government. I fear that," said 26-year-old Nader from Innsbruck. "I think that Austrian Muslims will face dark times in Austria."

The Freedom Party's success can be explained with their extreme anti-refugee stance during their election campaigns

'Clash of civilisations'

The success of the Conservative and Freedom parties success can be explained by their extreme anti-refugee stance during their election campaigns. Both parties frequently critcised what the "left-wing liberals" did to their country by opening the borders to refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and emphasised a "clash of civilisations" narrative in Europe.

In the case of the Conservatives, this rhetoric was mainly led by the party's leader, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who might yet become Austria's youngest-ever chancellor, and possibly one of the world's youngest political leaders in history.

Kurz once held liberal views on migration and refugee policies. However, this changed during this year's campaign, when he started to adopt the Freedom Party's tone as he fished for voters.

As a result, those who most fear the latest developments in Austria are refugees themselves.

"I fled from war and destruction and tried my best to start a new life in this country," said Mustafa, a 29-year-old refugee from Afghanistan. "However, my request for asylum hasn't been replied to yet... Many of us [refugees] had noticed a huge political campaign against us. We are literally the scapegoat for every problem. I'm very afraid that those who made this rhetoric now won the elections."

Ali is another refugee from Afghanistan, also living in Innsbruck.

"My application for asylum has been rejected one time," he said. "I expect that a right-wing government would deport me immediately."

Some observers already fear that the right-wing party might take control over interior ministry. With such a step, they would head the state's entire executive branch, including the police

Far-right, far-reaching implications 

The Conservatives and the Freedom Party are officially in coalition talks. Some observers already fear that the right-wing party might take control over the interior ministry. With such a step, they would head the state's entire executive branch, including the police, and would be resposible for Austria's asylum and migration authorities.

"Originally, I planned to stay here and to bring my relatives, my wife and my children, to Austria. But considering the current political realities, I'm not sure if I myself will be allowed to stay here or not," said Qais, another Afghan asylum seeker.

"I'm not allowed to work here or do anything. My daily life is terrible and I feeld that many people simply don't like me because of my appearance."

There is still the danger that other political parties adopt the Freedom Party's rhetoric to regain their voters instead of opposing right-wing stances. This has already happened in some cases, making the far-right in Austria stronger and more influential.

"Already in past, established parties adopted many stances and slogans of the Freedom Party after it made huge gains," said Farid Hafez, an Austrian political scientist currently at Georgetown University. Hafez, who has studied the performance of right-wing parties for years, added that the success of other European right-wing parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) was foreseeable and was connected to the Freedom Party's rise in Austria.

Emine Aslan, an author and anti-racist activist from Frankfurt, Germany, believes that in both Germany and Austria hate crimes and institutional racism will increase after the success of the far-right.

"I think that we can compare the situation with the one in the United States, where a lot of right-wing extremists felt encouraged to commit hate crimes after the election of Donald Trump," she said.

Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist based in Germany and the founder of Drone Memorial, a website that lists the victims of drone strikes.

Follow Emran on Twitter: @Emran_Feroz