Saturday

27th May 2017

Focus

Austrian far-right set for strong showing in EU vote

  • Most Austrians worry about unemployment, the economic situation and the rising cost of living. (Photo: EUobserver)

Low interest in the European election as well as a feeling that traditional parties are not representing the views of ordinary voters could see Austria's far-right, anti-EU Freedom Party (FPOe) scoop around 30 percent of the vote in the May EU elections.

Signs of discontent were already evident at last year's parliamentary elections when the grand coalition of the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right People's Party was re-elected with a paper-thin majority.

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Combined they represented 50.9 percent of the vote – their worst score in the history of the Second Republic.

By contrast, the hard-right Freedom Party, part of the European Alliance for Freedom, scored its best result since 1999, gaining 21.4 percent.

The vote breakdown showed that the party – led by Heinz-Christian Strache, a member of a student fraternity that admires German nationalism – was poaching voters from the Social Democrats. It received 33 percent of all working-class votes while the Social Democrats managed 24 percent of this constituency.

The September results were also a wake-up call for the centre-right People's Party which lost support among its traditional vote base – the middle class.

While voter turnout for last year's national election was 74.9 percent, it is expected to be much less for the European election. In 2009, only 46 percent of voters went to the EU urns.

"The European Parliament election turnouts have been constantly decreasing since Austria's accession to the EU in 1995," says Peter Filzmaier, head of the Institute for Strategic Analysis in Vienna. He is doubtful that the trend will be bucked in May.

The economic crisis and the travails of the eurozone could, in theory at least, be meaty topics for Austrian parties to try and engage voters about the European Union.

But Filzmaier indicates that although the issues are much discussed at political level, it would be difficult to make the debate broader.

"In practice, the discussion would only reach those who are open for European issues," he says. "I also wonder if the European election campaigns are important enough for political parties to put a lot of effort and resources into them."

Unemployment and the economy

According to a survey published last autumn by Eurobarometer, most Austrians worry about unemployment, the economic situation and the rising cost of living.

Meanwhile the European Parliament election campaigns are likely to be dominated by the same themes as last September's national elections.

The Social Democrats are set to focus on reducing unemployment, while the People's Party will emphasise strengthening the economy.

In the 2009 European elections, the centre-right People's Party took first place scoring exactly 30 percent, followed by the Social Democrats with 23.7 percent.

But Thomas Hofer, expert in political communications and associate professor at the University of Applied Science in Vienna, says it is "rather illusory" to think they will manage the same feat or more in May.

Othmar Karas, vice president of the European Parliament, is the party's leading candidate. Strongly pro-EU, he already has 16 years of experience as an EU deputy.

"It was definitely the right decision to nominate him, but what is clear is that Karas has to keep his critical stance towards his own party if he wants to succeed," says Hofer.

Wolfgang Boehm, political editor at Die Presse, says: "Many people will vote for Karas because of his pro-European engagement and because he seems trustworthy but I do not think he has the ability to offset the party's low profile [among voters]."

The Social Democrats attracted a lot more media attention with their nomination. Sixty-two-year old Eugen Freund, a recently retired and well-known TV anchor, is to try his hand at raising the centre-left's popularity.

"Basically, it was a clever political move to nominate Freund because of his high reputation. But his media appearances until now have been very poor," says Hofer.

In a recent interview with the political magazine profil, Freund estimated the average monthly gross income of a blue-collar worker at around €3,000. In fact, it is about €2,000.

Meanwhile, Hannes Swoboda, well-known in Brussels for heading up the social-democrat faction in the parliament, is retiring.

"The Gypsies are coming"

The third strongest political force is the Freedom Party. The far-right party is going to benefit most from the combination of anger and anti-EU sentiment, reckons Boehm.

"Due to the recent crisis, I assume that the FPOe is going to be the major beneficiary of euroscepticism," he says.

The party is using two politicians in its campaign.

One is Harald Vilimsk, a professional PR consultant and long-standing confidant of Freedom Party leader, Strache. The other is controversial publicist and well-known far-right politician Andreas Moelzer, currently an MEP.

The February issue of his magazine "Zur Zeit" caused a stir with a cover story saying: "The Gypsies are coming" – in reference to the lifting of labour restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers – and comparing leftist protesters to National Socialists.

A cartoon in the magasine also depicted the night of 24 January as "Kristallnacht 2014", because thousands of left-wingers and anti-fascists protested against the Academics Ball, an annual gathering organised by the Freedom Party.

Meanwhile, the eurosceptic Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZOe), which failed to make the parliamentary threshold in the September elections, is seeking to change its fortunes by having Ulrike Haider-Querica at the top of its list.

She is the daughter of the late Joerg Haider, the politician who brought the Freedom Party to the height of its popularity before he left it to form the BZOe.

It is unclear whether eurosceptic Hans-Peter Martin will run again. He surprised both in the 2004 and 2009 rounds scooping 14 and 18 percent respectively running on an independent transparency ticket.

Peculiarities of Austrian politics

Political communications expert and academic, Hofer, points out that Austrian voters "never really got a chance to avoid" a grand coalition of the centre-right and centre-left.

He puts this down to the special position the far-right and nationalist Freedom Party has occupied in Austrian politics since the late 1980s.

"In contrast to Germany, Austria totally neglected to cope with its political past and involvement in Nazi crimes," says Hofer.

For example when Kurt Waldheim, who was a former UN secretary General in the 1970s, was running to be the country's president it was revealed that he was a former officer in the Wehrmacht, the armed services of Germany's Third Reich. He served as Austria's president between 1986 and 1992.

"Controversies such as the Waldheim affair or the Academics Ball etched a traditional left-right pattern into the Austrian political mind," adds Hofer, which makes many voters still believe that they are able to chose between a left wing and a right wing although the two sides are almost indistinguishable in several policy areas.

This allows the Freedom Party the liberty to choose where it wants to be on the political spectrum, sometimes rightist, sometimes leftist, depending on the issue.

Meanwhile the debate about Waldheim's past and how to approach Austria's complicity in National Socialist practices polarised the public and gave agitators from the far-right political space to spread their demagogy.

The Freedom Party, then led by Joerg Haider, seized the opportunity and promoted German Nationalist ideas and right-wing populism.

In the parliamentary elections of October 1999, it ousted the centre-right People's Party from second place, securing 26.91 percent of the vote. The two parties then formed a coalition government in early 2000, prompting the first-ever EU sanctions against a member state.

Now, Strache and his entourage once again have the chance to repeat the heights of their success, particularly as they are set to inspire higher voter participation on their side.

A recent survey conducted by Deutsche Bank indicated that the Freedom Party could actually reach up to 42 percent in the elections.

"Forty percent would be an overestimate, but the FPOe is definitely in a position where it could score around 25 or 30 percent," reckons Boehm from Die Presse.

Austrian voters will elect 18 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 25 May.

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