Austrians concerned about immigration, Islam before they vote in parliamentary elections

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 3:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 3:00am

Wrapping up a bruising political campaign season, Austrian political parties were counting down to an election Sunday that could turn the country to the right amid voter concerns over immigration and Islam.

The vote is coming a year early after squabbles led to the break-up last spring of the coalition government of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party.

Sixteen parties are vying for 183 seats in the national parliament and will be chosen by Austria’s 6.4 million eligible voters. But less than a dozen parties have a chance of getting seats.

The People’s Party, which has moved from centrist to right-wing positions, was leading in the polls after an image makeover by its leader, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz.

Austria’s traditionally right-wing, anti-migrant Freedom Party is expected to come in second and the centre-left Social Democrats are thought to be trailing in third place.

Others that may clear the 4 per cent hurdle needed to get into parliament seats are the Greens, the liberal NEOS, and Liste Pilz, led by former Greens politician Peter Pilz.

Favouring the People’s and Freedom parties is distrust of immigrants and Muslims among many Austrian voters.

The 2015 influx of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war in Syria and poverty elsewhere into the EU’s prosperous heartland left Austria with nearly 100,000 new and mostly Muslim migrants. That has fuelled fears Austria’s traditional Western and Christian culture is in danger. As a result, voters are receptive to the anti-migrant platforms of both the People’s Party and the Freedom Party.

Although the Social Democrats have come either first or second in elections since the second world war, voters are now more receptive to calls for tougher immigration rules than the party’s focus on social justice.

“I’m of course pro-migration and that many people can come to us, but at some point we have to stop,” student Janine Leitner, 21 said on Saturday in Vienna.

Social Democratic Chancellor Christian Kern said his party will go into the opposition if it does not win on Sunday.

With a handful of other parties struggling to just get into parliament, the most likely post-vote scenario is a People’s Party-Freedom Party coalition that would move the government significantly to the right.

But other coalitions are possible, depending on the results.

While Europe’s centrist governments could view a rightward shift with some concern, architect Bernhard Egelmuller did not think there would be any major negative international fallout if the Freedom Party does join the next Austrian government.

“Right-wing parties in governments … exist in other European states as well,” said the 60-year-old. “It has proven to be less dramatic than anticipated.”