VIENNA – Europe’s migrant crisis helped Austria’s far-right post its best-ever election result in Vienna on Sunday, although its score was weaker than predicted and the center-left appears to have retained power in its traditional fiefdom.
Fifteen years after the Freedom Party (FPOe) under the late Joerg Haider stunned Europe by entering the federal government, projections suggested that the populist party won 30.9 percent of the vote in the city state.
The result for the party, now led by Heinz-Christian Strache, represented a rise of 5.1 percentage points compared to the last election in Vienna in 2010, when their score soared 11 percentage points.
The Social Democrats (SPOe), which have ruled Vienna uninterrupted since 1945, scored 39.5 percent, down 4.9 points, the projections based on 85 percent of votes showed, adding to a similar drop in support in 2010.
“Of course we would have preferred a neck-and-neck result, but this didn’t happen. At the same time it has to be said that this is the SPOe’s worst result in its history,” said Strache, 46.
“I said before (the election) that I was ready to assume the responsibility of becoming mayor. Today it wasn’t enough yet, but we took a step closer,” he said.
Opinion polls before the election had forecast a much closer result, with even a victory for the FPOe a possibility.
A major issue for voters — mirrored across Europe — has been the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants into the continent this year.
A survey released Sunday, which was commissioned by Austria’s national public broadcaster, showed that for 65 percent of voters in Vienna, the migrants crisis was a major issue in deciding whom to vote for.
Austria has seen more than 200,000 migrants enter the country since the beginning of September, most of whom traveled on to Germany or Scandinavia.
But the government still expects some 85,000 asylum claims this year, making the Alpine country of 8.5 million people one of the highest recipients in Europe on a per-capita basis.
Strache, a former dental technician, has called for Austria to copy Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and put fences up on the borders — something rejected by Chancellor Werner Faymann of the SPOe.
“Every property owner does this with his house, putting a fence around his garden and not leaving the doors and windows open, so unwelcome guests don’t come,” Strache said earlier this year.
But emulating Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s far-right National Front, Strache has also toned down the anti-immigration rhetoric seen in earlier campaigns in his 10 years as FPOe head.
Gone are the slogans vilifying Islam. The posters all over Vienna were more subtle: “Help for our poor,” they declare, adding in smaller letters “Instead of open doors for economic migrants.”
“Security for our people,” reads another, below a grinning Strache. “Instead of open borders for criminals.”
At the same time, Strache campaigned on traditional SPOe issues like alleviating poverty and more affordable rents, while even encroaching on liberal topics like slashing bureaucracy.
“He has shifted his political discourse,” political analyst Anton Pelinka said. “The xenophobic root was still there, but in a more latent form.”