Austria Is on the Verge of an Extreme-Right Wing Takeover

Just over a week ago, Austrians went to the ballot boxes to elect a new president. As expected, the ruling Conservative and Social Democratic parties performed poorly. Rising to the top was Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), who became the number one with over 31 percent of the vote. Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green politician and the only serious alternative, followed up with a distant 21 percent of the electorate behind him.


If the upcoming runoff on May 22nd between these two candidates fails to alter the earlier results, a right-wing extremist will become the President of Austria. While many Western European countries disempowered their presidents during the last decades, things in Austria are different. There, the president cannot be solely described as a representative head of state with limited powers. In fact, he or she is a political leader who is able dissolve the government. What’s more, the president is the army's Supreme Commander, a crucial and chilling point in the present situation. The current Austrian government, after months of desperate appeals to the FPÖ's electoral base, has built a fence against refugees on the country’s borders with Slovenia and Italy. There, the Austrian army is responsible for "protecting" the country's border.

Apart from the fact that the FPÖ is already dominating the political discourse in Austria, there remains the question of  how the country would look like if power lies totally in the hands of politicians who can fairly be described as fascistic. While many people still describe the FPÖ just as merely right-wing with a populist edge, a quick look at the party’s history exposes the party’s extremist foundations.

Founded by a former Nazi after World War Two, the FPÖ lay on the margins of Autria's political landscape until the 1990s. Under the leadership of Jörg Haider, the party broke into the mainstream. Haider, an eloquent and charismatic intellectual, was known for his deeply Nazi-sympathetic views and his verbal attacks on Jews, Muslims and migrants. At the same time, the FPÖ fostered an unusual network of connections with Arab dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar al Gaddafi. He became notorious around the globe for his extreme politics -- at one point, he praised the Third Reich's employment policy -- and erratic behavior.

Haider’s reached the apex of his success in the parliamentary elections of 1999 when the FPÖ got more than 26 percent of the votes. Thanks to this result, Austria's Conservative Party entered into a coalition with the right-wingers in the upcoming years. Later, Haider left the party and created a new one. In 2008, one of Austria's most controversial political figures and, until today, a folk hero of Europe's far right, died in a car accident. Some of his supporters still believe that Haider was killed by the Israeli Mossad instead of accepting that he was just driving drunk.

Haider's successor in the FPÖ was Heinz-Christian Strache, once known as his protégé. During the years of Strache's leadership, the party followed the path of other far-right movements in Europe, transferring its anti-Semitism into the more acceptable bigotry of Islamophobia. It won headlines with slogans such as "Daham statt Islam" ("At home instead of Islam") or "Isst du Schwein, darfst du rein" ("You may enter [the country] if you eat pork"). Strache himself often loved to pose with a cross during rallies while he warned of the "Islamization of Europe".

When I was a teenager, I witnessed Strache speak live during one of his rallies in my hometown of Innsbruck, the capital of the federal state of Tyrol. After Strache labelled leftist protestors as "the real Nazis", he proceeded to memorialize Andreas Hofer, Tyrol's national hero who lived in the 18th and 19th century. Hofer used to be the leader of the so called Farmer's Riot which resisted the better armed Bavarian troops of Napoleon Bonaparte in Tyrol.

Strache suggested that nowadays, the "holy land of Tyrol" – like many parts of Austria, the state holds fast to its Catholic traditions – has to be defended not against French or Bavarian troops, but against the invasion of Muslims, refugees and immigrants.

One can only imagine how people like me with a migrant or Muslim background feel when they hear such warlike words at a rally in the middle their hometown. It was a terrifying spectacle that was secured by the police, whose members have often demonstrated their sympathy with the FPÖ.

Years later, the party is surging again on a “pro-security” platform. In his election propaganda, Strache is often seen posing with police by his side. Given the well-documented racist tendencies of Austria’s police, perhaps it is not a coincidence that they wear the same blue uniforms as the country’s fascists.

Far-right parties are on the rise across Europe, winning votes by inciting against Muslims. While the FPÖ has deeply antisemitic roots that made Haider persona non grata in Israel – sometimes it is said that every taxi driver in Tel Aviv knew his name – times have changed.

In recent years, Strache has made several visits to Israel. Following the trend of Europe’s radical right, the FPÖ insists that its newfound support for Zionism and its solidarity with Israel’s far-right government have exonerated it of its history of anti-Semitism. In 2014, Strache declared that his party shared Israel's main enemy, Islamist extremism. "We fully support Israel's right to exist and its right to self-defense", he proclaimed.

Strache continued, "Europe has a special responsibility towards Israel. On the one hand,  relating the current threat of radical Islam, a kind of "new fascism", and secondly because of the fascism of the past, the misdeeds in the Shoah.

When Strache travelled to Israel last April, he was welcomed by Avi Dichter, a Likud politician and Member of the Knesset. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the main topic of Strache and Dichter's meeting was the "fight against terrorism". Israel's Foreign Ministry announced that the government had no connection with Strache's visit. Yet Strache was hosted by the party of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During his visit, he met several politicians, including a number of unnamed government ministers..

It is likely that if and when he becomes president, the FPO’s Norbert Hofer will dissolve the government after his swearing-in. In such a case, new elections would take place immediately. Strache often made clear that he has ambitions to become Austria's chancellor. If this is the case, then Hofer could open the door for the fulfillment Strache's plan. Such a scenario would complete Austria's path total reversion to fascism, a horrifying prospect not just for the country, but for the entire continent.



 

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