The Freedom Party is tapping into anxiety over the high number of migrants in Vienna. The far right has become a challenge to the Social Democrats, who have ruled Austria's capital for decades, Alison Langley reports.
The refugee crisis that has overwhelmed Europe this year is loosening the Social Democratic Party's 70-year grip on power in Vienna and bolstering the far-right Freedom Party as voters in the Austrian capital head to the polls Sunday.
The Social Democrats have won every election since World War II, and the city's current mayor, Michael Häupl, has been in office since 1994. But while rising numbers of migrants from the Middle East arriving en masse may be speeding up the demise of Red Vienna, the party's grip on the city has been loosening for years, with voters now frustrated over skyrocketing rents, rising unemployment, stagnant wages and a record municipal debt.
"City debt is higher than it's ever been," says Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party, as he ticks off the social ills plaguing Vienna. "Highest tax burden, highest unemployment and now the refugees. That is the result of 20 years of Häupl."
Now, as Vienna becomes a focal point for refugees, voters are divided. Some, mostly young, continue to tirelessly welcome, feed and clothe the migrants at Vienna's two train stations. They donate time, clothing, SIM cards and money.
Others have become anxious about how the city will cope, about what will happen to schools, to housing prices and to social benefits. Both train stations are packed day and night with thousands of migrants as they transit to Germany, making travel difficult for Austrians. The capital expects to take in 12,000 asylum seekers this year.
At a televised debate, Häupl said, "We can manage that."
'Preserving Christian culture'
And although the number of refugees is only 0.5 percent of the population, the far-right Freedom Party has made it a rallying cry. Strache has called for Austria to build a fence to keep out asylum seekers and worries loudly that the country will lose its culture and religion.
"Security for our citizens instead of open borders for criminals," reads one of their campaign posters. Strache promises that a vote for the Freedom Party is a vote against the "Islamization" of Austrian culture. "We have a Christian culture; and we want to keep a Christian culture for our children."
At the Freedom Party's last rally Thursday night in St. Stephansplatz in central Vienna, the bells of the cathedral chimed seven times. Strache paused. "The bells are wonderful. Let's enjoy them," he said to rousing applause.
The messages appear to resonate. Polls show support for the far right has jumped about seven percent, so that the party is nipping at the heels of the Social Democrats. According to the OGM poll commissioned by the "Kurier" paper, the Social Democrats have between 37-38 percent of the vote; ahead of the Freedom Party's 33-34 percent. The poll, taken between September 28 and October 1, carries a 3.6 percent margin of error.
"Apparently one group is not happy with their situation in life. When they are worried about their lifestyle, they feel threatened," says Florian Perlot, a political scientist at Vienna's Institute for Statistical Analysis.
And the refugee crisis plays into the hands of Freedom Party's leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, and his anti-immigrant, anti-European Union party platform. This comes at a time when European leaders like Angela Merkel and Francoise Hollande are working to hold Europe together as they search for a response to the refugees from war-torn Syria.
As Perlot points out, Häupl's Social Democrats also are part of the national government's ruling coalition, which is unpopular in large part over its handling of refugee crises. The outcome of the Vienna election could well be a harbinger of the fates of other sitting politicians throughout the continent.
But voters among Vienna's 1.8 million inhabitants are not only concerned by migrants. In one poll, they also listed unemployment and rising living costs as other causes for concern.
Vienna under Häupl has become a metropolitan city. It's been named the world's most livable city for the last six years by Mercer International, the consultancy firm. It has perhaps the best public transportation system on the continent - if not in the world - and is arguably the European center of culture.
Economically, though, it has been stagnating. At about 8.5 percent, Vienna has the highest unemployment rate in the country and wages, particularly for men, who comprise most of the Freedom Party's voter base, have stagnated. Unskilled laborers arriving from Eastern Europe, particularly those who do not speak German, have kept wages in check. The prospect of competing against more migrants has fostered anxiety among the Freedom Party's supporters.
"The whole debt that has grown over the last few years is a bunch of nonsense for us taxpayers," said Walter, 67, a long-time People Party member who said he would be voting for the Freedom Party for the first time.
City planners anticipate that Vienna's population will exceed two million by 2020, straining housing stock, as supply has not kept pace with demand. Moreover, with interest rates low, investors have flocked to the city's real estate market, where property prices in some districts have risen 10 percent per year since 2005. Rent increases have outpaced wage hikes, according to a recent Bank Austria report.
In a recent televised debate, Häupl touted a new social housing program that is expected to add at least 7,000 units per year. Red Vienna already owns more housing than any other in Europe. He repeats the motto often heard over the last 70 years that the Social Democrats "will take care of you."
His latest rallying calls have been a plea to voters to stop the nation's slide to the right. Last week, more than 150,000 people rallied at Hero's Square in support of refugees. The outpouring of generosity by Austrians initially was because, they said, they were disappointed with the official government's lack of coordination. Now, they say they will vote - less in support of the SPÖ than as a protest against the Freedom Party.
That is the Social Democrats' ace; at Monday's televised debate, none of the parties said they would enter into a coalition with the Freedom Party, should the far right win the most votes.