Austria’s far-right stakes claim to interior ministry ahead of coalition talks

Leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache speaks during a press conference following a party executive committee meeting in Vienna, Austria, 18 October 2017. [EPA/EFE]

Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) on Wednesday (18 October) named control of the interior ministry as its price for joining a future coalition government following its strong showing in a parliamentary election.

The anti-immigrant, anti-Islam FPÖ won around 26% of votes cast in Sunday’s election. The conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) won most votes by also taking a hard line on immigration, while the centre-left Social Democrats took second place.

EU holds breath after Austrian vote

Reactions from the European Commission and Council presidents are still pending following the early parliamentary elections held in Austria on Sunday (15 October), the nightmare outcome of which could be a coalition between the centre-right and the far-right.

Asked if the FPÖ would stick by its pre-election insistence that it would only join a future coalition if its candidate became interior minister, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache told reporters: “Yes.”

“We won’t go down on our knees for anyone. At 26% we naturally aim to implement our (FPÖ) policies in government,” Strache added.

The interior ministry in Austria oversees asylum claims and the fight against terrorism, among other responsibilities.

Austria’s president will on Friday formally ask Sebastian Kurz, leader of the ÖVP, the largest party at around 32%, to start negotiations on forming a new coalition government.

The ÖVP and the FPÖ overlap in their plans to curb immigration, cut social benefits for refugees, reduce the tax burden on companies and work towards repatriating powers to national governments from Brussels while strengthening external border security.

Spurning Social Democrats

All parties have kept their coalition options open, but the Social Democrats (SPÖ) are technically still bound by a party conference decision from 2014 that bans it from entering into a coalition government with the Freedom Party.

Under Austria’s outgoing Social Democrat chancellor, Christian Kern, the SPÖ has opened up significantly to the Freedom Party by introducing a so-called “value compass” for potential partners which does not specifically rule out working with the Freedom Party.

But Strache said on Wednesday that as long as there was no fresh vote among the Social Democrats’ base to formally annul the 2014 decision, talk of his party teaming up with the SPÖ was “theoretical”.

Influential FPÖ official Manfred Haimbuchner told newspaper Der Standard that he definitely preferred his party to form a government with the conservatives.

The FPÖ was founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s and first became a major political force in the 1990s under the charismatic Jörg Haider, who praised Hitler’s employment policies. (see background)

Today the party says it has put its Nazi past behind it and purged its ranks of anti-Semitism but still frequently has to expel members for anti-Semitic comments. It has, however, stopped calling for Austria to leave the European Union.

The Brief – Juncker’s muted message to Austria’s Wunderkind

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker congratulated Sebastian Kurz, who is already seen as the next prime minister of Austria, and wished him success in the formation of a pro-European government. He has also spoken to him, most probably on his iconic old-fashioned mobile phone.

Background

The EU has imposed sanctions only once against a member state. In 2000, 14 countries of the then 15-member EU reacted to the entrance of Jörg Haider's far-right Austrian Freedom Party into the Austrian government by freezing bilateral relations with the country.

No contacts or ambassadorial meetings at an intergovernmental level were held and Austrian candidates were not supported when EU international offices were assigned.

The sanctions were imposed in February 2000 and lifted seven months later when Haider stepped aside as party leader. He died in a car accident in 2008.

France, Belgium and Germany led the campaign to ostracise Vienna. This was seen largely to result from domestic political sensitivities to the far right. Then-President Jacques Chirac of France sought to oppose the country's Front National and Belgium faced pressure from the separatist Vlaams Blok.

By contrast, Italy and Denmark urged for the lifting of sanctions.

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