Nestled in the vineyards and rolling uplands east of Vienna, the town of Neusiedl am See is celebrated for its wine taverns, fine fish restaurants and water sports. Geraniums peak from window boxes; the cobblestone streets are meticulously swept clean each morning. The only thing the casual visitor might find mildly unnerving is the squawk of storks from their huge nests on the old town's chimney tops.
But for Austrian far-right politician Heinz-Christian Strache, Neusiedl am See is ripe for revolution. Speaking on a recent sun-drenched evening in the picture-book town square, he shouted and railed against the European Union, rising food prices, and the danger posed by "criminal immigrants." "Anyone who comes here and doesn't work, and becomes a criminal, will be deported!" warns the blue-eyed politico, a dental technician by training, dressed in an elegant brown linen designer jacket, to loud cheers from the gathering crowd and a blast of his own rap song, "Viva H.C.!" from towering speakers.
Strache is leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party, which together with an offshoot far-right party known as the Alliance for the Future of Austria is expected to win up to a quarter of the vote in general elections scheduled for September 28. That would be the best result for the anti-immigrant far right in Austria since the same Freedom Party, then led by the charismatic Jörg Haider, won nearly 28% of the vote back in 1999, triggering a wave of European indignation that culminated in E.U.-imposed sanctions. Haider split from the Freedom Party and now leads the Alliance.
It's not clear whether either far-right party would be invited to form part of Vienna's next government. The mainstream Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party (each currently polling around 30%, depending on the survey) are still expected to come in first and second. But the popularity of both the traditional parties has plummeted to historic lows. And whatever the shape of the next government, it will be under mounting pressure to pursue the kind of anti-European Union and anti-immigrant policies that the populist right favors, says Thomas Hofer, a political consultant and a former editor at the newsmagazine Profil. "The right wing in Austria is on the rise again," he says.
The irony in that rise is that Austria has rarely had it so good. Growth and investment have easily outpaced the E.U. average for years; banks are profiting from new markets in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The capital Vienna, flush with tax revenues, looks almost imperial again. Much of the country's prosperity is a direct consequence of one of the far right's most cherished bugbears: the E.U.'s expansion towards the east.
So it's not economic woes that are pushing voters to the right; in part it's immigration, which has long been an emotive issue for Austrians. Austria's location in the heart of Central Europe has made it a favored destination for several generations of migrants, from Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and, most recently, the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Against this modern reality stands Austria's relish of its historical role as a bulwark against eastern encroachments. The repulse of the Ottoman Empire's army from Vienna in 1683, when Muslim hordes were feared to be on the verge of overrunning Europe, is still widely commemorated. At the same time, Austrians are among the most euro-skeptic populations on the Continent. Just 28%, in a recent survey, said that they had a positive view of the E.U., a lower percentage even than in Britain. The sanctions imposed on Austria by the E.U. after Haider's strong showing in 1999 seem to have triggered an abiding sense of spite towards Brussels among large swaths of the population.
Meanwhile, Austria's mainstream parties, which have shared power in grand coalitions for most of the post-war period, are running out of steam. The latest partnership lasted less than two years before collapsing in acrimony in July, triggering this month's vote. An un-charismatic Social Democratic chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, failed to push through a single major policy initiative in the face of opposition from his ostensible governing partners in the conservative People's Party, which was looking for any excuse to break up the marriage. The final straw appears to have been Gusenbauer's promise, in a letter to a mass-market tabloid, that the Social Democrats would not approve any future E.U. treaty amendments without a popular referendum, a measure that the pro-E.U. conservatives said they could not accept. The latest polls say that a paltry 15% of Austrians want to see another grand coalition after this month's vote.
All of which is great news for leaders like Strache. The far right, says Hofer, "has been surprisingly good at connecting globalization, inflation and European issues to migration. It's not logical or fact-based, but they are talented politicians who are serving their target groups. These are well-crafted messages." In terms of actual policy, Strache has promised little except some programs to monitor immigrants who have been convicted of a crime with implanted chips and a call to deport "immigrant criminals." Crime levels in Austria, though rising, are still among the lowest in Europe.
The old days of Austria's far right, in which politicians, including Haider, commended Adolf Hitler's employment programs or spoke sympathetically to groups of former Wehrmacht officers, are over. Instead, Strache, 39, is presenting himself as a rebel and an outsider.
This produces some jarring juxtapositions. Though he has built his career on dire warnings about the dangers of foreigners, Strache poses on his website as Che Guevara, donning the rebel's trademark beret and highlighting the last three letters of his name for anyone who misses the point. He praises Venezuela's left-wing demagogue Hugo Chavez and, in his campaign rap "Viva HC!", chants "Yes-We-Can" (in English), a reference to the campaign slogan of Barack Obama. That's an odd choice given that Strache is urging that some African immigrants be deported. "Austria! First!" he sings, backed by an unsettling crowd chant. "Our Homeland! Our people! Our culture! Our language! Is what I stand for, HC Strache!"
Strache's supporters are enthusiastic. "Patriotism is very important for
me," says one, who gave his name as Geza, a 24-year-old law student. "It is
the basis for tackling all other issues." Geza worries that "we are losing
our national sovereignty." Of Strache he says: "He speaks to us, the youth.
He is not afraid to talk about sensitive issues and he doesn't throw sand in
our eyes." Karl, a pensioner in his 70s, complains that "the Blacks (the
conservative People's Party) are kapitalistische Schweine. And the
Reds (Social Democrats) are just the same. Strache is a super man." Maybe.
Some campaign literature from the Freedom Party even depicts Strache literally as a super hero, blue jump suit and all, hovering in the sky to protects Austrians from the alleged cynical manipulations of the Social Democrats who supposedly are admitting immigrants just to get their votes. Austria's far right seems to be quite good at telling stories. But as a political phenomenon they are all too real.
With reporting by Bethany Bell / Neusiedl am See.