March 28, 2018 / 4:37 PM / in 4 months

Austrian far right comes off worse after coalition's first 100 days

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s government, the only one in Western Europe to include the far right, has spent much of its first 100 days dealing with anti-Semitism scandals and other unforeseen headwinds but only the anti-immigrant Freedom Party has suffered damage so far.

Austria's Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

After an election dominated by Europe’s migration crisis, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives and the Freedom Party (FPO) have stuck to their hard line on immigration, pledging to cut benefits for refugees and workers’ children living abroad.

But unscripted incidents have been piling up, from allegations of an FPO-driven purge at a domestic intelligence agency to unexpectedly stiff opposition to the government’s plans to allow smoking in bars and restaurants.

So far, the 31-year-old Kurz has stayed largely on-message, if slightly withdrawn, while most of the blame for recent setbacks has stuck to the FPO, costing it support both in regional elections and national opinion polls.

“The FPO grew up as an opposition party,” political analyst Anton Pelinka said. “As a government party they are certainly going to have to suffer heavy losses. That is already becoming clear.”

During more than a decade in opposition the FPO presented itself as the only alternative to the Alpine republic’s tradition of centrist coalitions like the last one, between Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) and the Social Democrats.

While it has only lost a few points in polls since securing 26 percent in October’s parliamentary election, the FPO has failed to match that score in all three provincial votes this year. Polls show support for the OVP unchanged at about 32 percent.

A cartoon this month in the Oberoesterreichische Nachrichten newspaper illustrated the mood, showing a suited Kurz walking on water while FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache was neck-deep in it, arms flailing from his life jacket.

The FPO has certainly been in more hot water than Kurz and his party.

An anti-Semitism affair that has engulfed two right-wing fraternities close to the FPO prompted the party to set up a committee of historians to examine its past - an effort that Austria’s Jewish community views with scepticism.

The FPO also championed the right to smoke in bars and restaurants, spurring more than half a million people to sign a petition calling for a smoking ban, embarrassing a party that has simultaneously called for more direct democracy.

Strache also had to pay 10,000 euros ($12,350) in damages and issue a public apology to settle a defamation case brought by Austria’s top news anchor after he posted a message on Facebook accusing him and state broadcaster ORF of lying.

STRATEGIC SILENCE

But there is no sign so far that voters, many of whom had grown tired of bickering, often dysfunctional centrist coalitions, blame Kurz for bringing the FPO into government.

And although allegations of a purge by the FPO interior minister at the BVT intelligence agency have caused tension, the two parties and their leaders have largely avoided public disputes, in contrast to previous governments.

“Despite several potential conflicts they have been able to avoid open discord,” political analyst Thomas Hofer said. “The crisis management has been good.”

Kurz’s public comments have been so disciplined that he has been mocked for being too cautious or even silent. A satirical website said the late British physicist Stephen Hawking had bequeathed his speech synthesizer to Kurz to enable him “to communicate with the outside world again”.

That criticism appears confined to the Vienna bubble for the time being.

Economic growth in the affluent European Union country of 10 million people has picked up and is projected to reach around 3 percent this year, giving the government some fiscal leeway.

It plans to cut taxes and balance the budget next year but has so far shied away from serious structural reform. And it could ultimately be judged on whether it lives up to pledges to overhaul the public sector that have largely yet to be clearly defined.

“For the moment that is evidently still working - being popular without saying anything of substance,” Pelinka said. “How long can that last? Certainly not forever. But it could be one, two, three years.”

($1 = 0.8099 euros)

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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