Austrian elections pave way for populist government, making Muslims apprehensive

The elections to the National Council, the lower house of the Austrian Parliament on October 15, have marked a firm shift to the right in Austrian politics, particularly on matters of immigration, integration, and Islam.

Sebastian Kurz headed for an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition

After an electoral campaign dominated by at times vicious diatribes against Muslims and foreigners, the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) with 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz at the helm managed to secure 31.5 per cent of the popular vote, making it the largest group in parliament.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ), who had previously led a ‘grand coalition’ with the ÖVP as junior partner, took second place, with 26.9 per cent. They are followed closely by the third-largest political force, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which gained 26 per cent of the ballots cast. Liberals and an offshoot of the Green Party obtained 5.3 and 4.4 per cent of the vote, respectively.

With no party gaining an absolute majority, the most likely option for putting together a government appears a right-wing coalition between ÖVP and FPÖ. This would bring the Austrian populists into the government afte all, less then a year after they narrowly failed to clinch the country’s Presidency.

A campaign focused on immigration, integration, Islam

An ÖVP-FPÖ government is all the more likely since the obvious alternative – another grand coalition between Conservatives and Social Democrats – is despised by the electorate and viewed with weariness by party bosses. Against this backdrop of dissatisfaction with the status quo, the youthful Sebastian Kurz has not only stylised himself as a figure of radical political renewal since taking control of his ÖVP party; he has also steered a course of rapprochement with the FPÖ.

Throughout the electoral campaign, Kurz presented himself as the guarantor of a restrictive immigration policy – he claimed that it had been his initiative that had secured the closure of the refugee route across the Western Balkans in 2015.

Kurz also pushed the topic of “Islam” into the limelight of the campaign. Among other things, he called for a hijab ban in schools (while demanding that the Christian cross continue to be displayed prominently in every classroom).(( http://www.fr.de/politik/wahlkampf-in-oesterreich-sebastian-kurz-entdeckt-das-thema-islam-a-1337052 ))

Study on ‘extremist’ Islamic nursery schools falsified

Similarly, the ÖVP politician insisted on the need to close nursery schools run by Islamic organisations, claiming that they were hotbeds of Salafist radicalism.(( https://kurier.at/politik/inland/sebastian-kurz-im-kurier-gespraech-islamische-kindergaerten-abschaffen/271.008.503 )) Confessional educational institutions are widespread in Austria, with the Catholic Church running the vast majority of them.

Kurz justified his stance by pointing to a study on Islamic kindergartens that he had commissioned while serving as Austria’s foreign minister. Subsequently it emerged, however, that the Foreign Ministry had tampered with the study’s results in order to make them more amenable to Kurz’s ‘hard-line’ position.

Where the study’s author had observed that Muslim parents who sent their kids to nursery schools run by Islamic associations were looking for an education based on values of “self-reliance, respect, and love”, a foreign Ministry employee replaced this with the assertion that Muslim parents were seeking to “protect their children from the moral influence of majority society”.

In another passage, the study originally asserted that parents were interested in “respect, serenity, the child’s individuality, hygiene, the child’s happiness, punctuality, love, warmth and caring, self-reliance, as well as transparency of rules”. The Foreign Ministry altered this to claim that “parents place particular emphasis on the imparting of Islamic values”.(( https://cms.falter.at/falter/2017/07/04/frisiersalon-kurz/ ))

Difficult times ahead for Austrian Muslims

Against this backdrop, many Austrian Muslims unsurprisingly see an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz as a threat. Austrian blogger and activist Dudu Küçükgöl observed that “when it comes to efforts at integration, Austria will be thrown back by 20 years.” She expects a rise in racism and anti-immigrantism, particularly directed against the country’s Muslim population.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/16/oesterreich-erlebt-einen-starken-rechtsruck/ ))

Austria’s recently passed “Islam Act” might turn out to be particularly important in this respect. Enacted two years ago at the instigation of Kurz, Muslim activists have criticised the law for eroding Muslims’ civil rights.

Notably, the legal text provides far-reaching possibilities to dissolve Muslim associations should they fail to display a “positive basic disposition” towards the Austrian state – whatever this requirement might mean in practice.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/17/rechtsruck-unter-dem-deckmantel-der-integration/ ))

Discriminatory agenda

Consequently, many Muslims fear that the future government will use these extremely flexible legal provisions to their detriment. Murat Başer, chairman of the Islamic religious community in the city of Linz, observed:

“A possible FPÖ+ÖVP coalition could mean a broadening of the burqa ban into a general headscarf ban. It could also lead to a more robust and unchecked application of the Islam Act, which would see mosques and Islamic institutions being put under permanent surveillance.”(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/16/oesterreich-erlebt-einen-starken-rechtsruck/ ))

Should Kurz decide to go down this route, he will have the enthusiastic support of the FPÖ: the populists’ campaign called for “redistribution from foreigners to Austrians”, and their electoral placards promised that “we give back to YOU what THEY take from you.” Importantly, ‘they’ not only usurp economic opportunities but also rob Austrians of their cultural identity: “Islamisation must be stopped”, another FPÖ poster read.(( http://diepresse.com/home/innenpolitik/nationalratswahl/5282218/FPOe-plakatiert-Kurz-Kern-und-Gusenbauer ))

International significance of the vote

Political developments in Austria resonate beyond the country’s borders in particular ways. The FPÖ, one of Europe’s most long-standing and most successful far-right parties has been a pioneer of the present-day populist movement. It thus serves as a model for many other comparable parties across the continent.

When it entered the Austrian government for the first time – as a junior partner to the ÖVP – in 2000, the EU and its (at the time) fourteen other Member States reacted with a downgrading of bilateral relations with Austria. Seventeen years later, no such moves will be forthcoming.

German perspectives on the election

German observers tend to pay especially close attention to events in the Alpine Republic across their southern border. Against the backdrop of the strong showing of Germany’s own right-wing populist fringe in last month’s federal elections, commentators are debating the insights and lessons to be drawn from the Austrian case.

Many – including many German Muslims – see Austria as a harbinger of potential things to come: the inexorable growth of a xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic party on the right fringe; a party whose ability to attract ever-growing numbers of voters ultimately paves the way to its inclusion in government.

Austria as a warning…

In this view, events in Austria ought to be a cautionary tale to policy-makers and activists in Germany. Academic Werner Ötsch, whose research focuses on populist movements, asserted that “the Austrian development should really be a warning for Germany. Here [in Austria], no means against the right-wing populists has been found; and the participation in government such as it occurred in 2000 has not debunked the FPÖ but only made the situation worse.”(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/interview-populismusforscher-oesterreich-sollte-eine-warnung-fuer-deutschland-sein-1.3711357 ))

German Muslim voices have often struck a similar note, with for instance the Secretary General of the Islamic Community Millî Görüş (IGMG), Bekir Altaş, echoing the notion that the Austrian election results constitute “a stark warning”.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/16/oesterreich-erlebt-einen-starken-rechtsruck/ ))

… or as a role model

Others, however, interpret the electoral outcome in the opposite light: Edmund Stoiber, former leader of the CSU, Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel’s CDU, asserted that Sebastian Kurz’s campaign had delineated the path to be taken by centre-right parties in order to win elections against far-right populist opponents.(( http://www.focus.de/kultur/kino_tv/focus-fernsehclub/tv-kolumne-hart-aber-fair-bayerns-ex-ministerpraesident-edmund-stoiber-macht-seinem-unmut-in-der-sendung-luft_id_7721375.html ))

Thus, for Stoiber, Austrian developments do not offer a cautionary tale but should instead be emulated. (Stoiber had already supported the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition of the early 2000s. At the time, this sparked enormous anger among his German colleagues from the CDU.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/empoerung-in-der-cdu-ueber-edmund-stoibers-koalitionsempfehlung-zu-gunsten-der-fpoe/96400.html )) )

In some sense, Kurz’s victory might seem pyrrhic: it was, after all, the FPÖ that set the agenda for the electoral campaign and will most likely define the topics and the tone of Kurz’s policy initiatives in government. Stoiber’s statements nevertheless highlight the ways in which the Austrian election results will further intensify the factional dispute within the German CDU/CSU  over whether to respond to the rise of right-wing populists by emulating them.

Debating potential Burka ban in Austria

July 10, 2014

Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz is against a Burka ban in Austria. Kurz stresses that a ban of the Burka will not solve any of the challenges the Austrian community currently faces. The right wing party FPÖ spoke out in favour of a ban on the Burka.

Rightwing FPÖ leader criticizes Turkish PM Erdogan and is against Turkish Matura

June 14, 2014

According to Heinz-Christian Strache, who is the leader of the rightwing party FPÖ, the forthcoming visit of Turkish prime minister Erdogan would destroy the integration efforts of Austria. In addition, Strache opposes the project to establish Turkish Matura at Austrian Gymnasiums.He claims, that this would have a very negative influence on the integration process of Turks as well as indicate a false signal to the Turkish community, that they do not need to learn the German language.

 

 

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Ex-FPÖ Member Fined for Incitement

A former member of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) for the Vorarlberger region has been sentenced to either two years in prison or an unconditional fine of 1 200 Euros for Islamophobic comments that he had posted online. Though the man’s comments had received no support for his party, leading to his being dropping from the party’s electoral list.

In his defence, the man argued that he did not directly call for violence, though the presiding judge, Othmar Kraft, countered that the comments were clearly meant to incite. The sentencing is not yet legally binding, as the individual in question has asked for three days to reflect.

Brigittenau – Pro-Socialist District with a Jewish Past Now Fighting an Islam Center

In this portrait of Vienna’s 20th district, Brigittenau is described as a region that was originally highly influenced by the large Jewish population that used to live here. Unlike nearby Leopoldstadt, however, following the deportations of the Second World War the local Jewish culture was not reestablished. Today it is a multicultural district, with 27,1% of the local population holding foreign citizenship, much higher than the Viennese average (20,1%). The population is also on average younger, and has since time immemorial been governed by the social-democrats (SPÖ).

However, the district has recently made headlines due to local opposition to a planned Islamic centre in the street Dammstrasse, for which a committee has been founded (the Bürgerinitiative Dammstrasse). The initiative has received support from the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), whose leader attended a recent demonstration. The district has seen a significant rise in support for the FPÖ during the last decades, most notably in 1996 when the party managed to reach 30% and break the SPÖ’s absolute majority for the first time.

FPÖ Forced to Pay for Anti-Islam Seminar

One year ago, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) was found to have been using state funds for an educational seminar on Islam in which the religion was equated with fanaticism and extremism. During the seminar in question, entitled “The Basics of Islam,” the speaker Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff was quoted as having said that “Islam is hostile. The Koran is evil. Muslims hate us and are in a long-term war with us.” As a result of this, the responsible funding council has recently decided that the FPÖ will have to pay back the funds they received for the seminar, though the final decision will come from the Council of Ministers.

Despite the sum in question being estimated at only between 1000 and 3000 Euros, Klaus Nittmann, the director of the FPÖ educational institute at which at seminar was held, has stated that the party is ready to take the case to court. According to him, more than anything it is a “matter of principle.”

Fighting an Islamic Centre in Vienna’s Floridsdorf

When Leopoldine Weidinger found out that the Turkish Islamic centre across the street from her was planning on renovating its interior so as to receive five hundred people a week for prayers, she decided to act. Weidinger founded the “Citizen’s initiative – Rappgasse” in an effort to halt the expansion of the centre’s activities, which in her view would permanently disturb the tranquility of the small street, comprising no more than eight house numbers. The poor conditions of the building itself has also led the building inspection department to forbid the continuation of activities therein.

Her initiative has now received a considerable degree of media attention following a rally organised against the Islamic centre on 17 June 2010. Though all political parties had been invited, the participation of far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, who thanked the “real Viennese” for having attended, as well as the presence of a number of skinheads with “Honour, freedom, fatherland” t-shirts, clearly set the tone. Bringing together between 150 and 200 people –as well as a significant police presence–, the demonstration was denounced as a flop by the nearby counter-demonstration, which clearly outnumbered the former.

The following day Weidinger attended the “Open Doors Day” at a nearby mosque in Hubertusdamm. After having respectfully asked whether she should wear a headscarf, Weidinger spoke with Omar Al-Rawi, Socialist member of the municipal council, who assured her that though “there was nothing [she] could do about it, the skinhead Nazis cheering on [FPÖ-leader] Strache wrecked everything.” Weidinger lamented that she had invited all the parties from her district, however the only one to come was the FPÖ – even then, it had not been planned that the local representative would only speak five minutes and then leave the podium for Strache.

Weidinger maintains that her initiative is not against Islam, and she says she is also supportive of having more large and representative mosques in Austria. However she complains that the Turkish association in her street (the Turkish Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria, ATIP) is not like the mosque in Hubertusdamm: consisting mostly of men who do not understand Austrian culture (or the German language), they have gone so far as to ask her to stop lying in her garden topless, as she is visible from the top floor of the Islamic centre. Despite her successful visit to the local mosque, Weidinger plans to keep on fighting.

Fighting an islamic centre in Vienna’s Floridsdorf

When Leopoldine Weidinger found out that the Turkish Islamic centre across the street from her was planning on renovating its interior so as to receive five hundred people a week for prayers, she decided to act. Weidinger founded the “Citizen’s initiative – Rappgasse” in an effort to halt the expansion of the centre’s activities, which in her view would permanently disturb the tranquility of the small street, comprising no more than eight house numbers. The poor conditions of the building itself has also led the building inspection department to forbid the continuation of activities therein.
Her initiative has now received a considerable degree of media attention following a rally organised against the Islamic centre on 17 June 2010. Though all political parties had been invited, the participation of far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, who thanked the “real Viennese” for having attended, as well as the presence of a number of skinheads with “Honour, freedom, fatherland” t-shirts, clearly set the tone. Bringing together between 150 and 200 people –as well as a significant police presence–, the demonstration was denounced as a flop by the nearby counter-demonstration, which clearly outnumbered the former.
The following day Weidinger attended the “Open Doors Day” at a nearby mosque in Hubertusdamm. After having respectfully asked whether she should wear a headscarf, Weidinger spoke with Omar Al-Rawi, Socialist member of the municipal council, who assured her that though “there was nothing [she] could do about it, the skinhead Nazis cheering on [FPÖ-leader] Strache wrecked everything.” Weidinger lamented that she had invited all the parties from her district, however the only one to come was the FPÖ – even then, it had not been planned that the local representative would only speak five minutes and then leave the podium for Strache.
Weidinger maintains that her initiative is not against Islam, and she says she is also supportive of having more large and representative mosques in Austria. However she complains that the Turkish association in her street (the Turkish Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria, ATIP) is not like the mosque in Hubertusdamm: consisting mostly of men who do not understand Austrian culture (or the German language), they have gone so far as to ask her to stop lying in her garden topless, as she is visible from the top floor of the Islamic centre. Despite her successful visit to the local mosque, Weidinger plans to keep on fighting.

Swiss Help against Mosques

Following a heated debate in April in the municipal council between the mayor Siegfried Nagl and right-wing parties over the construction of a mosque for Turkish Muslims, the issue has quieted down. However in anticipation of provincial elections coming up in September, the far-right Austria Freedom Party (FPÖ) has decided to play on the issue to gain more votes. In preparation they have recruited Alexander Segert, the German-born marketing mastermind of the recent Swiss “Anti-minaret campaign.”

Swiss Help against Mosques

Following a heated debate in April in the municipal council between the mayor Siegfried Nagl and right-wing parties over the construction of a mosque for Turkish Muslims, the issue has quieted down. However in anticipation of provincial elections coming up in September, the far-right Austria Freedom Party (FPÖ) has decided to play on the issue to gain more votes. In preparation they have recruited Alexander Segert, the German-born marketing mastermind of the recent Swiss “Anti-minaret campaign.”

(Covering both Graz and the above story on the Citizen’s Initiative – Rappgasse)