Right makes Streit

Sep 302008

Austria's two nationalist parties gained an unprecedented share of the vote on Sunday. That alarmed the other 70 percent of the population and prompted my colleague to ponder emigration.

The question has come up in several of the conversations I've had in the last two days: What do I think of the election results? The Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the new Alliance for Austria's Future (BZÖ) raked in a combined 29 percent of the vote on Sunday, more than any grouping of right-wing parties since World War II. In 1999, FPÖ and the center-right Volkspartei virtually tied for second with 26.9 percent, and ended up as the governing coalition, which prompted symbolic sanctions by the EU and Israel.

FPÖ and BZÖ probably won't be in the government this time, but it's not for all lack of popular support. Together, they nearly bested the Social Democrats, who won with 29.7 percent, and clearly topped the Volkspartei, a pro-Europe party that draws its support from businesspeople and rural residents.

Many of the Austrians I know are shocked at the results because of FPÖ and BZÖ's reputations as anti-immigrant. My colleague Barbara "wants to emigrate," according to her Facebook page.

The establishment, too, is shocked. Within a couple of hours of winning the plurality, the Social Democrats ruled out a coalition with either of the two parties, leaving the Volkspartei as its only alternative. The weekly newsmagazine Profil hit the stands the next morning with a cover comparing the two party leaders to Hitler. "Sieg ... !" (Victory ...!) read the gothic script, a clear reference to the Nazi greeting "Sieg Heil!"

The election results are certainly notable, but I find them alarming only only in light of Germany's and Austria's history. In terms of rhetoric and actual policy proposals, the two parties hew far more closely to the Minutemen in the U.S. than to the National Socialist (Nazi) parties of the 1930s and '40s.

The two parties make use of anti-immigrant sentiment, specifically with occasional use of slogans such as "We can't let Vienna turn into Istanbul," a reference to the growth of the Turkish population over the last generation, to 4 or 5 percent today. That rhetoric is slightly worrisome, but I personally haven't seen evidence that either party advocates any sort of violence or hooliganism, nor that anti-immigrant sentiment is growing.

I think the increased support for the two parties comes mainly from their stance against the growing power and size of the European Union. That sentiment is hardly unique to the right. Even the Social Dems campaign nodded in that direction, and probably helps to explain why their share of the vote eroded by less than the Volkspartei's.