Protests muted this time as Austrian far right joins government

Head of the Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache (L) and head of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz shake hands after a news conference in Vienna, Austria, December 16, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Thomson Reuters

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) - The last time the anti-immigration Freedom Party entered government in Austria, the street protests were so big the cabinet took a tunnel from the chancellery to the swearing-in ceremony at the president's office across the road.

There will be no such cowering on Monday when, almost 18 years on, the country once again becomes the only one in western Europe with a far-right party in its ruling coalition.

Much as the reaction across the continent has been more muted, protests planned around the time conservative and Freedom Party (FPO) ministers are sworn in at 11 a.m. (1000 GMT) are unlikely to draw crowds to compare with the tens of thousands who gathered in 2000.

"We will certainly not be going underground to the Hofburg, but rather with our heads held high in the street," FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who will become vice chancellor, said in an interview with the Kleine Zeitung newspaper, referring to the former imperial palace that houses the president's office.

Conservative leader Sebastian Kurz, who is just 31, will become chancellor after winning a parliamentary election two months ago with a hard line on immigration in a country that was swept up in Europe's refugee crisis in 2015. The FPO came third with 26 percent.

The two parties reached a coalition deal on Friday that hands control of much of the country's security apparatus to the FPO and includes plans to slash public spending, cut taxes and curb benefits for asylum-seekers.


NO LONGER AN OUTLIER

The FPO's success was an outlier in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s when it was led by the late Joerg Haider, who praised Adolf Hitler's employment policies.

Now it is one of many anti-establishment parties making electoral gains, capitalizing on voter frustration at mainstream politicians' handling of the economy, security and immigration. Its allies and sister parties this year entered the German parliament and made the French presidential run-off.

"The coalition now in power in Austria must prompt the vigilance of democrats attached to European values," European economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici, a Socialist, said on Twitter.

"The situation is no doubt different compared with the precedent of 2000. But the far right being in power is never insignificant."

Other European countries imposed sanctions on Austria that year in protest at the FPO coming to power. There is no such action being taken this time.

Police said 1,500 officers were deployed in Vienna to deal with nine demonstrations that had been registered, with organizers having said they expect 5,000 people to attend.

"For the moment, it's very, very quiet," a police spokesman said as protests were due to begin. Despite the relatively small numbers, a large area near the president's office has been sealed off.

A Reuters photographer saw several thousand people marching peacefully next to that area, carrying placards saying "Nazis out" and a banner reading "Don't let Nazis govern".

The FPO, which was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis, has backed away from calling for Austria to follow Britain in holding a vote on leaving the European Union. Polls show most Austrians want to remain part of the bloc.

While handing the foreign ministry to an independent who will work for the FPO, Kurz has taken control of European policy and obtained a guarantee that there will be no Brexit-style referendum.


(Additional reporting by Heinz-Peter Bader; editing by John Stonestreet)

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