Letter from Austria

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Manfred Ecker reports from Vienna on what is behind the growth of support for the Austrian far right parties.

The recent general election was a warning. The extreme right could soon become the strongest force in the Austrian parliament. The Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) got 17.5 percent and Jörg Haider's Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZO) got 10 percent.

Ordinary people in Austria are angry and feel betrayed by the elites. The left must build an alternative to the Social Democrats (SPO) otherwise the extreme right is going to strengthen its influence.

When Haider split the FPO in 2005, many on the left hoped that Austria had got rid of the Nazi threat for a long time, if not forever. But the reasons for the rise of the extreme right persisted. Three years later the so-called third camp has become the second biggest camp, just 0.8 percent behind the SPO, who have seen their worst election result since 1945.

Haider's death prompts the same speculations as the split of the FPO did in 2005. It may well be that the BZO awaits the same destiny as Pim Fortuyn's party in the Netherlands, which disappeared after Fortuyn was murdered. But then the FPO would probably be the main beneficiary.

The absence of a radical left alternative to the SPO is the main reason for this shocking election result. Anger and disillusionment have driven people away from the SPO and conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP) who had a comfortable majority throughout the more prosperous phase of capitalism.

Voter transition analysis shows that the SPO lost 171,000 voters to the FPO and 191,000 abstained, while the conservatives lost voters mainly to Haider's BZO. The FPO and BZO were the only parties that could mobilise people who abstained in the elections of 2006. Most alarming is that the FPO is the strongest party among young workers. Not surprisingly it is that group that is hit hardest by the economic crisis.

But the Greens also lost 0.6 percent in the recent elections. Green delegates are the only ones who generally defend the case of asylum seekers in parliament. On the other hand the Greens are firmly pro-EU and against a referendum on EU treaties. This tells people that they are just not smart enough or educated enough to make decisions over such complicated matters. They are frequently perceived as supporters of the elites rather than an alternative to them.

Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the FPO, successfully mobilised the hatred of the elites with the simple slogan, "THEY are against HIM, because HE is for YOU." He opposes the elites on other important issues as well. In the Georgian conflict he appeared to be against Nato. He also supports Serbia and is against Nato plans for Kosovo.

Pictures of Strache as a youth in neo-Nazi training camps did nothing to diminish support, but many of his voters find his racist slogans difficult to swallow. Slogans like "Vienna must not become Istanbul" and "Social justice, but for our people only" are among the softest that come from his party.

In autumn 2007 Strache led a demonstration against plans to build a mosque in the Viennese workers' district Brigittenau. Susanne Winter, the FPO front runner in Graz, called the prophet Mohammed a child molester. Her son Michael Winter demanded sheep for the parks of Graz to prevent Turkish men from raping Austrian women - the insinuation being that Turkish men were in the habit of bestiality.

On the other hand the conservatives were put on the defensive last year by Arigona Zogaj, a young refugee from Kosovo who went into hiding to escape deportation. A majority of Austrians were against her deportation, and the interior minister Platter was for a short period the most unpopular politician of all "for being so inhumane".

A protest in support of Arigona was called and in only a few days drew around 11,000 people. In small towns in Upper Austria, where refugees get to know their neighbours personally, more than 60 action groups for the right to stay came into existence. The right to stay campaign got overwhelming support from churches as well as prominent trade union leaders.

We do have very good premises for building a fighting left alternative. But, as the election results have shown, the crisis can also lead to a catastrophic response if the radical left fails to do so.