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'Nothing to fear' as anti-immigration Austrian far-right enters government

The anti-immigration FPOe came third in the election with 26% of the vote.

Heinz-Christian Strache, left, chairman of the right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE, at a press conference with Foreign Minister and leader of the Austrian People's Party, OEVP, Sebastian Kurz.
Heinz-Christian Strache, left, chairman of the right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE, at a press conference with Foreign Minister and leader of the Austrian People's Party, OEVP, Sebastian Kurz.
Image: Ronald Zak/AP

AUSTRIA’S FAR-RIGHT FREEDOM Party (FPOe) was in triumphant mood today after agreeing a coalition deal with the conservatives, capping a year of successes for Europe’s nationalist movements.

As the parties met to rubber-stamp the accord struck the previous day, Herbert Kickl, the FPOe’s secretary general and Austria’s next interior minister, said he had “very, very good feeling”.

“Nobody has anything to fear,” Kickl said, one of six FPOe ministers in the new government including defence and foreign affairs. Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, will be vice-chancellor.

The agreement reached by Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party (OeVP) and the FPOe sets Kurz, 31, up to become chancellor and also the world’s youngest leader.

Kurz and Strache are to unveil their programme today, with the government likely to be sworn in on Monday.

The OeVP came first in October snap elections after Kurz — who is known as “wunderwuzzi” or “whizz-kid” — rebranded the formerly staid party as his own personal “movement”, promising to get tough on immigration and to lower taxes.

Economy and security

“Our aims are quite clear. We want to ease the tax burden for people, we want to strengthen our economy, which will bolster our social system,” Kurz said late Friday.

“And first and foremost we want to increase security in our country, including by combating illegal immigration,” Kurz told reporters.

The anti-immigration FPOe came third in the election with 26% of the vote, which was double the stunning 13% notched up by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in elections the month before.

Both Kurz and Strache stoked concerns about immigration following a record influx in 2015, and also took advantage of voter fatigue with the OeVP’s previous “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats (SPOe).

Their success was mirrored in elections elsewhere in Europe this year.

Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party became the second-largest in the Netherlands, France’s National Front was in a runoff for the presidency in May and the AfD entered the Bundestag, re-drawing Germany’s political map.

Real power

But the FPOe is rare in western Europe, having translated its ballot box success into real power. Last year it came close to winning the largely ceremonial presidency.

The last time the FPOe entered government was in 2000 under Joerg Haider, its controversial leader at the time who has since died, in a move which saw Austria briefly ostracised within the European Union.

This time though the reaction is likely to be much more muted with the FPOe seen as having mellowed and with Europe more inured to rightwing parties.

Several different groups including the anti-fascist “Offensive against the Right” have said they plan to stage demonstrations on Monday in Vienna.

The FPOe is also ambivalent about the EU but the joint programme shows that Kurz has managed to ensure the government will be decidedly pro-European, political analyst Thomas Hofer said.

“The European part is very strongly influenced by the OeVP and it is ruled out that there might be a referendum on Austria’s membership of the EU or other international organisations,” Hofer told AFP.

© AFP 2017

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