Hardline Austrian coalition assumes power amid protests

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz signals plan to reset ‘incorrect refugee and migration policy’

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz:  “We will do what we think is correct.” Photograph: Bloomberg

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz: “We will do what we think is correct.” Photograph: Bloomberg

 

Amid loud and emotional protest in Vienna, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his new right-wing populist government were sworn into office on Monday morning.

Mr Kurz, leader of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and Austria’s youngest-ever head of state, said he expected robust protest to his government programme.

“That is legitimate but we want to correct what I view as incorrect refugee and migration policy of recent years,” he said. “We will do what we think is correct.”

Nine weeks after winning the election, his programme for government promises Austrians tax cuts and greater spending on police and security, and vows to cut welfare for asylum seekers to a minimum and expedite deportations.

Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Austria’s vice-chancellor, has dismissed concerns that, in office as junior coalition partner, his party will normalise intolerance towards minorities and foreigners.

Mr Strache, a one-time protege of the late Jörg Haider, said: “Of course we are tolerant for those who think differently but we’ve seen in recent years that those who demand tolerance are intolerant of those who think differently, such as in the Freedom Party.”

In the Hofburg swearing-in ceremony President Alexander Van der Bellen – with an eye on the FPÖ – reminded the ministers they had promised him continuity in EU and foreign policy and to respect the separation of powers.

“From now you have the good of all people in view . . . Austrians and all in Austria, ” he said.

Outside the Hofburg palace, once home to Austrian Kaisers, some 1,500 police were deployed to keep watch on an estimated 6,000 protesters throwing tomatoes and fireworks, and waving signs reading “Don’t let Nazis govern.”

“I find this government really shitty and their programme anything but progressive,” said Nadja, a student from Vienna, to Austrian radio. “I worry that values we considered self-evident – tolerance, diversity, assistance for asylum seekers – will be eliminated.”

Smoke rises during a demonstration against Austria’s coalition government in Vienna, on Monday. Photograph: Reuters
Smoke rises during a demonstration against Austria’s coalition government in Vienna, on Monday. Photograph: Reuters

Though loud, Monday’s protests were mild compared to the riot in Vienna when the FPÖ last entered government in 2000.

Then, police battled stone-throwing protesters, the new government ministers slipped into the Hofburg ceremony via an underground tunnel and the archbishop of Vienna called on God to “hold His protective hand” over Austria.

The openly xenophobic FPÖ’s arrival into office in 2000 prompted Israel to withdraw its ambassador and other EU member states to impose sanctions – for seven months – until they were found to be counterproductive.

On Tuesday, Mr Kurz will fly to Brussels to meet European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Discussions are likely to focus on the EU’s ongoing migration debate – with a tougher line likely from Vienna – and Austria’s EU presidency in the second half of 2018.

Almost two decades after sanctions, the FPÖ’s return to power prompted a tweet from commissioner Pierre Mosovici that “the entry of a far-right party to power is never normal”.

Austrian political scientist Thomas Hofer linked the muted reaction to the fact that “Austria is now not the only European country with right-wing populist parties, it is the new normality”.