LINZ, Austria (AP) — The beer’s been flowing since early morning, the air is tinged with the smell of bratwurst and cigarette smoke, and the crowd is hyped. Hoots, whistling and frenetic clapping compete with chants of “H-C! H-C!” as the man of the moment bounds onto the stage.
The scene is something out of a pop concert. But the beer-tent hero is Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria’s populist Freedom Party. And his message is putting a scare into the country’s governing coalition ahead of EU Parliament elections.
Despite its Euroskeptic stance, the Freedom Party is only a few percentage points behind the Socialists and the conservative People’s Party in the May 25 race for EU Parliament seats. That’s in line with expectations of a generally strong showing of right-leaning populist parties in the EU parliamentary race.
But pollsters also say that if national elections were held now, the Freedom Party would actually win them, a stunning upset of the two establishment parties that have traditionally governed Austria.
The party’s popularity clearly reflects unhappiness with the status quo. And that’s hard to explain, when looking only at Austria’s metrics.
Though inching up, unemployment remains among Europe’s lowest at 4.9 percent. A tightly meshed social security net provides broad benefits. And even though taxes are high to fund such generous welfare, Austria is among the richest countries of the 28-nation European union, measured in take-home pay.
Ironically, that’s part of the problem.
Many view their country as an island of prosperity threatened by hostile outsiders — Muslim refugees, cheap foreign labor, or Brussels-based “Eurocrats” looking to strip them from their national identity, while misappropriating their hard-earned money to bail out other EU countries. Domestically, many Austrians are suspicious of big banks, foreign business and establishment parties that they view as corrupt and unresponsive to the problems of the little man.
The Freedom Party knows how to exploit such fears, and Strache is in his element as he works his audience.
He calls for “an end to further immigration into our labor market,” and the crowd erupts in approval. Cheers and hoots greet his claim that some school classes have such a high share of Muslims that “you need a magnifying glass to find the Austrian children.”
For him — and his fans — taxes are too high and unjust, the work of a government of “robber barons.” A proposed free-trade pact between the U.S. and the EU is a “crime that our children and grandchildren will have to pay for.” And faced with EU attempts to “homogenize” Europe, his party is alone in “fighting to keep our sovereignty, our culture and our identity.”
Drenched in sweat and hoarse from shouting, Strache is mobbed at the end of his hour-long speech. Asked what makes his party so popular, he fixes unflinchingly stern blue eyes on a reporter: “Our honesty, our down-to earthness, our heart and our character,” he says.
Many in the beer tent agree.
“He’s the only Austrian where one gets the feeling that he honestly cares for our nation,” says Angela Lang, 73. For Franz Gillman, 77, “the other parties … are not Austrian” while Strache “is honest and he makes a case for Austria.”
But the explanation for his popularity is more complex.
Freedom Party campaign posters proclaim “Too Much EU is Dumb,” and demand that Turkey be kept out of the European Union. But political analyst Peter Filtzmaier says the party also appeals those not usually receptive to the standard anti-foreigner “my country first” message, by reaching out to many traditionally left-wing voters.
“The party is rightist-populist on strong law-and-order demands, like the need for more police or (reducing) immigration,” he says. “It is leftist-populist on socio-political themes, such as ‘the state has to provide much more social welfare.'”
Under Strache’s nine-year tenure, the party has toned down overly anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric to broaden its appeal, and the telegenic 44-year old former dental technician dismisses as attempts to defame him photos that critics say link him to neo-Nazi activities as a youth. Yet he was caught on tape privately disparaging Jews several years ago.
But he has moved energetically to cleanse the party of those who publicly espouse racist sentiments, most recently forcing a party member to pull out of the EU election race after he said Europe risked turning into a “conglomerate of negroes … where chaos multiplies (through) mass immigration.”
Still, the far-right fringe is there, sometimes on Strache’s website, and sometimes in person.
Ignored by the rest of the crowd roaring its approval of Strache and his speech, one man stood up, his legs unsteady, and stretched out his arm in the Hitler salute, holding it for more than 10 seconds.
Asked by a reporter what he was doing, he lowered his arm and turned away.
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