Oct 17, 2008

World - Austria turning rightwards

With the resurgence of the far-right parties and the marginalisation of the moderate parties in the recent elections in Austria, there are concerns about the country’s future political course. At the least, Austria is in danger of developing a much nastier reputation, which the whole world and especially the European Union must take very seriously. While introspection continues as to why the voters lurched to the right, what was clearly evident was their dissatisfaction with the centrist parties such as the Social Democrat SVÖ and the Christian Democrats which have more or less dominated politics for decades. These moderate parties, which have governed Austria in coalitions over decades, have for the first time in years had the lowest levels of support, their vote shares plummeting sharply. In results that have stunned Europe, Heinz-Christian Strache’s far-right Freedom Party, the FPÖ, won 18 per cent of the vote and the party of the late Jorg Haider, the Alliance for the Future of Austria won 11 per cent of the vote. The centrist SVÖ got only 30 per cent and the ÖVP 25 per cent. Mr. Strache, a dental technician who is openly xenophobic and is thought to have neo-Nazi connections, says that he wants to become the new chancellor. The alarm bells are ringing at the ascendancy of these rightist parties particularly because of their anti-immigration and anti-EU platform.

It is evident why the rise of these new parties has sent a chill down the spine of the European Union. The EU apparently has no formal powers that it can use over this type of development, and in 2000 other EU leaders stopped cold-shouldering the then Austrian coalition, which included the then far-right Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider. The sudden death of Mr. Haider in a car crash will in all probability send many of his supporters to Mr. Strache’s party. As of now, these parties only represent a powerful political force with the centrist parties attempting to revive their “grand coalition” which collapsed after continuous infighting, necessitating these elections. On October 8, President Heinz Fischer gave the Social Democrats a mandate to form a government, and the Conservatives are willing to resume talks with them on a grand coalition. The challenge before these parties is to ensure that more political space is not provided for the rightist parties to make inroads, which will not only be detrimental to the country’s own political future but would also seriously impair its relationship with the rest of Europe. If Austria succumbs to the dominance of these far-right parties, which have clearly racist and anti-immigrant political platforms, it is headed for fresh international isolation.

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