"Firewall against right-wing extremism". Since January, thousands of protesters regularly gather and march through central Vienna. Photo: Agnes Fältman.

FUF-correspondents, Report

Thousands protest that right-wing populist party may win the election in Austria

On the streets of Austria, there are demonstrations against right-wing extremism and scandals EU-critical party Freiheitliche party Austria (FPÖ). With 30 percent of voter support is FPÖ according to opinion polls the largest party ahead of the country's upcoming parliamentary elections. About FPÖ comes to power, it could mean major changes for Austria, the EU and European aid to Ukraine - which the party wants to stop. 

Thousands of Austrians have protested on the country's streets since January against the advance of right-wing extremism in Germany and Austria. The protests are organized by various civil society organizations, trade unions, political groups and representatives of religious communities - including the climate movement Fridays for Future and the organization Grandmas Gegen Laws (grandmothers and grandmothers to the right). With the slogans "defend democracy!" the crowds demonstrate against racism, xenophobia, right-wing extremism — and against the FPÖ. 

The noted organization Omas gegen Rechts participates in a demonstration in Vienna on March 23. "Cohesion against the right" reads their banner. Photo: Agnes Fältman.

The trigger for the protests was the revelation of a secret meeting in November where, among others, representatives of the German nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland, AfD, and the far-right Austrian profile Martin Sellner participated. Martin Sellner is seen by many as the European the face of right-wing extremism 

At the meeting, the possibility of enforcement was discussed mass deportations of millions of people from Germany – including immigrants, asylum seekers and German citizens of foreign origin – who, according to the meeting participants, are not considered to have integrated well enough. 

Martin Sellner is the leader of the far-right "Identity Movement" in Austria. Photo: Simon Kaupert. Source: Wikimedia commons.

The demonstrations in Austria are expected to continue in the spring. Loud voices are being raised against the country's counterpart to the AfD, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, which has a good chance of becoming the largest party in late summer's parliamentary elections. At the latest demonstration in Vienna on March 23 spoke representatives from, among others, Fridays for Future and said that "coalitions with right-wing extremists should not be allowed to be formed" — referring to the FPÖ and its party leader Herbert Kickl. 

But why is the FPÖ criticized so often right now? And what does the party really stand for? 

2024 is an intense year in Austrian politics: EU elections in June, then parliamentary elections after the summer. Like AfD's successes in Germany, support for the sister party FPÖ has grown more and more. Today, the party leads in opinion polls — about 30 percent of the respondents would vote for the FPÖ if there were elections next Sunday. 

Tobias Micko believes that the FPÖ can become the largest party in the late summer parliamentary elections. Photo: Private.

Tobias Micko, 24, comes from Vienna and is familiar with domestic politics.

- I think that many people's Dissatisfaction with the actions of the established political parties during the financial crisis in 2008, then the refugee crisis in 2015 and since the corona pandemic has caused more people to turn to right-wing populist parties. The lack of strong left-wing populist leaders in difficult times has also led to today's opinion figures, he says.  

Why so many protest against a possible government coalition containing the FPÖ is partly because the party was previously in government in Austria. Most recently, from 2017 to 2019, the party ruled together with the conservative Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP). Then it ended in a fiasco. 

The government collapsed because of the so-called "Ibiza Affair" - when FPÖ's then party leader Heinz-Christian Strache was filmed in a luxury villa in Ibiza talking to a woman who said she was related to a Russian oligarch. When she expressed an interest in buying up parts of the country's largest tabloid newspaper, the party leader also offered the vice chancellor lucrative public tenders in return for the newspaper helping the FPÖ in their upcoming election campaign. 

The scandal led to the resignation of Heinz-Christian Strache and a large loss of confidence in the FPÖ, but since 2019 the party's popularity has slowly but surely increased again.  

FPÖ skeptical of the EU's support for Ukraine and migration

During the corona pandemic criticized FPÖ restrictions in Austria and where skeptical of the covid vaccine, which was supported in the opinion polls.  

Because of his many controversial statements, Herbert Kickl creates polarization within Austrian politics. Photo: Michael Lucan. Source: Wikimedia commons.

The party has a critical attitude towards the EU and specifically European aid to Ukraine. Party leader Herbert Kickl claims that Austria's support for the war-torn country violates Austria's constitutional military neutrality, and he protested with the rest of his party when the president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke via link in the parliament in Vienna. During the speech, when the president testified about the war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, FPÖ representatives left the hall holding signs with the words "place for peace" and "place for neutrality".  

Herbert Kickl calls the sanctions against Russia too harmful and also opposes Ukraine's EU candidate status. That the party has close connections to Russia and concluded a "friendship agreement" with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in 2016 is no secret. Although the FPÖ themselves claim that the contract has expired accused the party for submitting up to 30 pro-Russia motions to Parliament since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

— Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs is definitely deeply involved with the Russians, says Tobias Micko. 

"Putin is a war criminal" reads a placard. Photo: Agnes Fältman.

But the issue that perhaps most clearly profiles the FPÖ is the migration issue, like many other right-wing populist parties in Europe. The proposal for so-called return migration has not only been highlighted by the right-wing profiler Martin Sellner, who attended the controversial meeting with Alternative für Deutschland representatives, but also by FPÖ.   

In 2023, Austria had it largest number of asylum applications in almost 70 years - significantly more than during the migration crisis of 2015. Herbert Kickl and the FPÖ therefore want to make Austria a "fortress" with closed borders and not accept any more applications for asylum, which would contradict UN Refugee Convention. The party and its youth association have also spread the conspiracy theory that a population exchange ongoing and that the Austrian "indigenous" population is threatened.  

Many of the protesters on the streets of Austria therefore believe that the FPÖ's migration policy and their statements on the issue are similar to the proposals made at the secret far-right meeting in Germany.  

That the party was founded in 1956 by former SS officer and that Herbert Kick it used controversial and Nazi-conditioned concepts reinforces this image of the protesters. For example, he has named himself as the country's future "Volkschanzler", a term coined in Nazi Germany in 1933 to designate Adolf Hitler. Even ÖVP's party leader and Austria's Chancellor Karl Nehammer, one of FPÖ's former partners, names Herbert Kickl as right-wing extremist. 

"We've already had Nazis! It was lousy.” That's what a woman who took part in the demonstration in Vienna on March 23 thinks. Photo: Agnes Fältman.
Herbert Kickl the most popular party leader before the election

Despite controversy, the party is the largest in the opinion polls by a good margin, and Herbert Kickl is it most popular candidate for the post of Chancellor.  

— I think that the FPÖ has a good chance of becoming the largest party in the election, but they will not be able to come to power without cooperation with the ÖVP, says Tobias Micko. 

That the conservative Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP) would again turn to the FPÖ to form a coalition government is now considered by many to be likely, despite Karl Nehammer's statements about Herbert Kickl. ÖVP has one low support in public opinion and their current coalition with the green party Die Grünen scrapes together a paltry 30 percent — a far cry from the 52 percent they got together in the 2019 election. But what would it mean for Austria, and Europe, if the FPÖ comes back to power? 

— If the party comes to power again, it will be different than last time, when they now have the upper hand over ÖVP. They will get more of their proposals through, says Tobias Micko. 

He believes that the FPÖ will make its voice heard within the EU and will work against, for example, tougher environmental legislation. There is no doubt that the party will join the growing phalanx within the EU that wants significantly tighter immigration and less aid to Ukraine.   

Party leader Herbert Kickl has on repeated occasions praised Viktor Orbán's leadership and the political development in neighboring Hungary, which can no longer be classified as a full-fledged democracy according to the EU. He believes that the Hungarian Prime Minister should be a "role model for many in Europe". 

"Less FPÖ = more democracy". Photo: Agnes Fältman.

— I think that Herbert Kickl will change the role of the intelligence service and monitor society and political opponents more — similar to what Orbán is doing in Hungary, says Tobias Micko. 

An example of this was, according to Tobias Micko, the so-called BVT affair, which was discovered in 2018 when Herbert Kickl was Minister of the Interior. Then the eco-crime authority, which obeyed an FPÖ party mate of Herbert Kickl, carried out a raid on the premises of the counter-terrorism authority and at the homes of several of the authority's employees. Quantities of documents on right-wing extremist profiles that were reviewed by the counter-terrorism agency were seized. Therefore, it was speculated that the FPÖ wanted to prevent any leaks about far-right connections to the party by confiscating the documents.  

"It has led to destroyed trust in our common democratic institutions, which puts them in great danger," says Tobias Micko.

Is there something in the text that is not correct? Contact us at opinion@fuf.se

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