Vienna's far right gains as migrants flood in

Migrants resting on camp beds at an improvised shelter in a concert hall in Wiesen, Austria.
Migrants resting on camp beds at an improvised shelter in a concert hall in Wiesen, Austria.PHOTO: REUTERS

VIENNA • As befits the city of Sigmund Freud, Vienna has two faces - one sweet, one sinister.

Behind the schnitzel and strudel, Mozart and the opera, lurks the legacy of the Nazis who forced Jews to clean sidewalks with toothbrushes.

Now the burning question in Vienna is: Which face will prevail in the city's elections on Oct 11?

For most of the last century - aside from the Nazi years, 1938-45 - the left has ruled "Red Vienna", with its pioneering public housing and welfare, and its cultural ferment.

But against the backdrop of Europe's refugee drama, the far-right Freedom Party is threatening the Social Democrats' hold in what may portend a more general rise in populist, anti-immigrant sentiment across the continent.

Riding a wave of anxiety over the tens of thousands of migrants entering Austria last month, the Freedom Party finished second, with just over 30 per cent of the vote, in regional elections in northern Austria on Sunday.

The Freedom Party's strident anti-Islam message seems to have struck a chord in a city whose palaces speak of the bygone glory of a multi-ethnic European empire and whose public spaces now attest to increasing diversity and a Muslim population of some 12 per cent.

"We don't want an Islamisation of Europe," party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said as he began his campaign to be Vienna's mayor. "We don't want our Christian-Western culture to perish."

In Germany, such sentiments exist on the fringe of politics. In Austria, which never underwent de-Nazification programmes after 1945, the Freedom Party has morphed from its roots in former Nazis to a xenophobic message blended with concern for the little guy.

In the last Vienna elections, in 2010, the Freedom Party vaulted to more than 25 per cent of the vote, a gain of over 10 percentage points. This year, opinion polls suggest the far-right party had pulled almost level with the Social Democrats, who got 44 per cent in 2010.

The causes are manifold, including unemployment of more than 10 per cent and dissatisfaction with the long-time mayor, Mr Michael Haupl.

Opponents of the far right hope the city's warm welcome to migrants arriving from Hungary and the discovery of 71 corpses in a truck abandoned by smugglers have turned the tables on Mr Strache. But not everyone is optimistic.

"The people are ready to help," said Mr Hans Rauscher, a columnist for Der Standard newspaper. "But don't kid yourself. You only have to listen to the gossip in the bars" to know that anti-Muslim feelings run high.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2015, with the headline 'Vienna's far right gains as migrants flood in'. Print Edition | Subscribe