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Austrian center slips as far right wins votes

Statement by Britta Schellenberg

By Nicholas Kulish

28.09.2008 · International Herald Tribune

Austria's anti-immigrant, extreme-right parties benefited Sunday from the deep discontent of the nation's citizens, winning more than a quarter of the vote in parliamentary elections.

With more than 90 percent of the vote tallied, the two mainstream parties suffered significant losses in the parliamentary elections Sunday, though they still clung to the largest vote totals and could rebuild their fractious, unpopular coalition. The Social Democratic Party, headed by Werner Faymann, led the voting with 30 percent, followed by the conservative People's Party with 26 percent. They slipped by about 5 percentage points and 8 percentage points, respectively.

But by far the most notable result was the success of the far-right parties. Heinz-Christian Strache's Freedom Party won 18.2 percent of the vote, a gain of more than 7 percentage points. The Alliance for Austria's Future - led by Jörg Haider, the longtime head of the Freedom Party, who broke away and formed the new party in 2005 - more than doubled its result in the last vote two years ago to 9.8 percent.

Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe have been powerful forces in European politics in recent years, and rising discontent over globalization and higher consumer prices have fueled populist sentiment, benefiting rightist groups that place the blame for economic woes squarely on immigrants and foreign competition.

Strache, a former dental technician, has called for a stop to immigration and to reclaim some of the sovereign powers handed over to the European Union. For Haider, his party's strong gains - and victory in the southern state of Carinthia, where he is governor - seal a political comeback since his sudden departure from the Freedom Party.

There is no love lost between the erstwhile allies, which would make any coalition that includes both of the far-right parties more difficult to form. Haider has tried to strike a more moderate line in this election campaign compared with his longstanding extreme image.

"As of today, thanks to Jörg Haider, there are no longer major parties in Austria," said Martin Strutz, secretary general of the Alliance for Austria's Future. The Social Democrats and People's Party "must answer for the worst results in their history," said Strutz, calling for a new governing coalition.

The Austrian government, a coalition between the Social Democrats and the People's Party, collapsed after 18 months of bitter dispute between the two largest parties, which prevented action on much-discussed reforms. Their combined popularity reached an all-time low for the post-war period.

For the People's Party, the weak showing continued a stunning reversal from its victory with 42 percent of the vote in 2002. Yet Austria's two largest parties could reconstitute their so-called grand coalition and, despite their losses, continue to govern together.

Also possible, at least mathematically, would be a coalition of the three rightist parties, 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 condemnation.

In their much larger neighbor to the north, Germany, there is a worrisome neo-Nazi subculture, but extreme-right parties like the National Democratic Party are weak, not even winning enough votes to get into the national Parliament. The thriving populist party in Germany is the Left Party, made up of offshoots of the old East German Communist Party and former Social Democrats disaffected by Germany's version of welfare reform.

That is not the case in Austria.

"In Austria, on the national level, there is no real left-oriented populist party," said Peter Filzmaier, a political science professor at Danube University in Krems. As a result, he said, protest votes go to the far right, and this year there is widespread dissatisfaction among Austrian voters.

"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,"' Filzmaier said. "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."

A recent survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found rising anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe. Britta Schellenberg, a research analyst on rightist radicalism in Europe at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, is coordinating an 11-country study of extremism in conjunction with the Bertelsmann Foundation.

"We see that right-wing ideologies are getting stronger, gaining more support in society," Schellenberg said.

She said the study, the final results of which will be released later in the year, had found that xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment were joined with increasing antipathy toward globalization and capitalism.

"This is exploited by the radical right more frequently than even a couple of years ago," Schellenberg said.


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