Austria: Anti-government protests hope to break populist groundswell | News | DW | 11.10.2018
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Austria: Anti-government protests hope to break populist groundswell

Angry with Austria's archconservative and anti-immigrant government, leftists have called for weekly protests. But many young people in Vienna are hoping their millennial leader can make Austria great again.

"Resistance!" came the shouts of 20,000 people who gathered in Vienna's Ballhausplatz square last Thursday, in front of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's office. And this week, even more are set to do it again.

After nearly a year of archconservative rule by Kurz's Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), the left has revived the so-called "Thursday demonstrations" of the early 2000s. Then, as now, the weekly rallies were meant to show opposition to an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government and, in particular, to what activists see as the FPÖ's long history of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and now Islamophobia.

What makes Austria unique among many Western nations facing a rising tide of right-wing populism, however, is the enthusiasm with which young people are embracing it.

"Right now we have 11,000 active members and countless more are interested," the office of FPÖ's youth wing told DW. "The numbers are increasing even year, and last year's election had a very positive impact on that."

In much of the West, support for populist politics, exemplified by Brexit and US President Donald Trump, is perceived to be within the wheelhouse primarily of baby boomers. In Austria, however, particularly in its well-to-do capital, young people love their sharp-dressing, smooth-talking 32-year-old chancellor, the first millennial head of government and the youngest leader in Austria's history. They look up to him and they want to take selfies with him, but mostly, they are excited about the prospect of their country being important again.

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Austrian "Grandmas against the Right"

'He has the ear of everyone'

It's easy to see why Vienna is often ranked the "world's most livable city." It's as beautiful as Paris, as clean as Switzerland and as hip as Berlin. There is little to be seen of the great tide of Middle Eastern and African foreigners the FPÖ and ÖVP use as grounds for their hard-line immigration policies.

"He really cares about putting Austria front and center," says Daniel, a 24-year-old business student, in one of Vienna's countless trendy cafés. "He doesn't just do whatever Brussels demands. And because of that, he has the ear of everyone in Europe, east and west."

Kurz would probably appreciate this appraisal, and it's clear that the center stage is where he's at his best. The world's youngest-ever foreign minister at 27: one doesn't get that far that early by fading into the background.

In recent months he has cozied up to ethno-nationalist leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. He has also shown a willingness to distance himself from longtime allies in Berlin by seeking a closer relationship with Merkel's frenemy, her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, as well as Markus Söder, his successor as premier of Bavaria, which borders Austria.

"I do wish he hadn't entered into a coalition with the FPÖ," said 26-year-old Maria, while showing off her collection of "Sebastian" pictures taken each time she's seen him around Vienna. "But I like his style. He's not condescending or arrogant, like other young leaders such as Emmanuel Macron."

FPÖ xenophobia 'has been normalized'

Maria's sentiments were echoed around the capital. No one would admit to supporting the FPÖ, which has been known for decades for anti-Semitic scandals. While the party has distanced itself from anti-Semitism, vocalized support for Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and sought closer ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flagrant xenophobia is still part of their rhetoric. The party has tried to ban the dissemination of free copies of the Koran, and regularly decries the "Islamization" of the West.

Vienna protests

One of Thursday's protesters suggests: "Break Nazis with cuddles"

In Germany, when members of the far-right movement PEGIDA attempt to promote the same narrative, they are met by swarms of counterprotesters. In Austria, with the FPÖ as a major political force since the aftermath of World War II, "their far-right talking points have been normalized," as one young journalist in Vienna put it.

Some of Kurz's young supporters in the capital sought to downplay the importance of the FPÖ – despite its holding the vice-chancellorship and the crucial Interior and Defense Ministries. And despite scandals such as the revelation that 20 of 51 FPÖ lawmakers are former members of nationalist (and sometimes Holocaust-supporting) fraternities, or attempts at clamping down on press freedom.

"I think they're just getting started," said a Jonas, 24, a self-identified leftist with a heavy sense of defeat, referring the government's increasingly strict immigration policies aimed at curbing non-European migration. Considering support has barely moved a percentage point in either direction for the FPÖ and ÖVP since the election, he may be right.

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