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When Economy Wanes, Politics in Europe Tend to Tilt Right

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache. Photo by Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images

A new maxim appears to be developing in politics from Central and Eastern Europe into Western Europe: the further down the economy goes, the further right go the politics.

The maxim was reaffirmed Sunday in Austrian local elections as the far right saw a big jump in its vote totals, especially in the traditionally left-wing capital, Vienna. And an anti-immigrant theme is even sounding into Western Europe.

The winning blend of conservative economic or populist politics, sometimes mixed with anti-immigrant rhetoric, repeats a pattern that was reaffirmed in Hungarian national elections in May and local elections last week; in Latvia last week; and in the Czech Republic earlier this spring. In those elections, the conservatives campaigned on economic austerity.

The politics in those countries, unlike Austria where the impact is likely to be purely domestic, could spill into the international economic arena. The Hungarian conservative gains followed the decision by its national government to break off talks with the International Monetary Fund and try its own brand of economic reform. In Slovakia, the conservative government saw a surge in support after it declared it would not pay into a European Union rescue fund for Greece and other weak EU economies.

Even if the Austrian election results do not have any ripple effects outside the nation of 8 million, they are nervously watched by other Europeans always wary of resurgent neo-Nazism. In the Vienna elections, the rightist Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote, a 12 percent gain. It was not enough to unseat the ruling Socialists, but they will now have to govern in a coalition with the conservative People’s Party, just as they do at the national level.

The British Press Association reported the Socialist Mayor Michael Haeupl was crestfallen:

“The voter is always right in a democracy, and as a democrat, I accept this result, and now we have to keep working.”

As Eric Frey, managing editor of Vienna’s Der Standard newspaper noted, the Freedom Party’s total almost reached the record 28 percent it gained under the leadership of the charismatic Jorg Haider, who was killed in a car crash two years ago. The party’s campaign included a proposed ban on new minarets and headscarves and included the theme of a Strauss waltz (Wiener Blut or Vienna Blood) which opponents labeled racist.

“The (Freedom) party is further to the right today than it was then, party leader (Heinz-Christian) Strache really comes out of the far-right Neo-Nazi corner though he tries to make himself respectable.

“The issue of immigration has also hardened in these 14 years, so even more people are willing to support a far-right party. The newcomers among the (Freedom Party) voters are male pensioners, who used to support the Social Democrats because they were afraid of pension cuts, but they are more afraid today of foreigners in their neighborhood,” said Frey of the past decade growth of Balkan and Turkish immigrants to Austria and Vienna, a city of 1.7 million.

“Vienna has one of the best records of integrative policies of any major city in Europe, but it did not help,” Frey added.

Indeed, in recent Western European elections — in the Netherlands in June and three weeks ago in Sweden — anti-immigrant parties have seen a surge in support. Last month, the Sweden Democrat party won enough voters to enter parliament. And in the Netherlands, the Dutch Freedom party of Geert Wilders, which campaigned last spring on an anti-Muslim platform and won 24 seats in the 150-member parliament, agreed to support the new center right coalition, reportedly in exchange for pledges to cut government aid to immigrants. In both those countries, economic conservatives gained or held control of government and Socialist parties saw drops in their numbers.

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