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Far-Right, Anti-Immigrant Parties Make Gains in Austrian Elections

Statement by Britta Schellenberg

Published: September 29, 2008

BERLIN — Austria's anti-immigrant, far-right parties benefited from the severe discontent among citizens of that small Alpine nation, winning almost a third of the vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday

07.10.2008 · New York Times

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The country's two mainstream parties suffered significant losses, though they received the most votes and could rebuild their fractious, unpopular coalition. The Social Democratic Party led the voting with 30 percent, followed by the conservative People’s Party with 26 percent; they slipped by roughly 6 percentage points for the Social Democrats and 9 percentage points for the People’s Party.

But by far the most notable result was the success of the far-right parties. The Freedom Party, which is led by Heinz-Christian Strache, won 18 percent of the vote, a gain of 7 percentage points. The Alliance for Austria's Future, led by Jörg Haider, a longtime Freedom Party leader who broke away and formed the new party in 2005, got 11 percent, nearly tripling its result in the last vote two years ago.

Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments have been powerful forces in European politics in recent years, and rising discontent over globalization and higher prices has helped fuel populist sentiment, benefiting right-wing groups that place the blame for economic woes squarely on immigrants and foreign competition.

Mr. Strache, a former dental technician, has called for a halt to immigration and a reclamation of some of the sovereign powers handed over to the European Union. For Mr. Haider, his party's strong gains — and victory with almost 40 percent of the vote in the province of Carinthia, where he is governor — seal a political comeback since his departure from the Freedom Party.

There is no love lost between the erstwhile allies, which would make any coalition including both of the far-right parties more difficult to form. Mr. Haider, in particular, tried to adopt a more moderate line in this campaign than in the past.

"There are no longer any major parties," Mr. Haider said in an interview with the Austrian television station ORF. "It shows how great the exasperation is with red and black," a reference to the colors of Social Democrats and the People's Party.

The election was not a referendum on immigration, according to Wolfgang Bachmayer, managing director of the OGM Institute, a political consulting firm. It was primarily frustration with the dysfunctional government that defined the results, he said.

"In this election campaign, it also was more about social themes and an anti-European Union attitude," he said. "The Freedom Party in this campaign made far fewer attacks on foreigners than in the past."

The Austrian government, a coalition between the Social Democrats and the People's Party, collapsed after 18 months of bitter dispute between them, which prevented action on much-discussed reforms. Their combined popularity had reached a postwar low.

For the People's Party, the weak showing continued a stunning reversal from its victory in 2002. Yet Austria's two largest parties could reconstitute their so-called grand coalition and, despite their losses, continue to govern together.

A coalition of the three right-wing parties is also possible, though the People's Party ruled that out during the campaign. When the conservatives formed a coalition with the Freedom Party in 2000, it provoked international outrage and sanctions by other European countries.

"If you ask the voters, 'Are you economically or socially in a better situation than two or three years before?' then a clear majority says, 'No, we are worse,' " said Peter Filzmaier, a political science professor at Danube University in Krems. "This is a typical mood that helps populist parties. Then there's a profit for right-wing groups that say it is foreigners and other countries that are to blame."

Britta Schellenberg, a research analyst on right-wing radicalism in Europe at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, said that xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment had joined with increasing antipathy toward globalization and capitalism. "This is exploited by the radical right more frequently than even a couple of years ago," she said.

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