Thousands in Austria march against far-right in government

Braving snow, protesters in Vienna carry banners decrying fascism and racism to mark year since formation of coalition between conservative OeVP and far-right FPOe

People take part in a rally at Heldenplatz a year after the formation of a government by the Conservative Oevp - FPOe on December 15, 2018 in Vienna. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)
People take part in a rally at Heldenplatz a year after the formation of a government by the Conservative Oevp - FPOe on December 15, 2018 in Vienna. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

VIENNA, Austria — Thousands of protesters in Vienna braved snow and icy temperatures Saturday to protest Austria’s ruling coalition between the conservatives and the far-right a year after they came to power.

Some 17,000 people took to the streets of the capital despite the bad weather, according to police estimates, while organizers put turnout at 50,000.

Many were waving banners reading “Fascists out of the government,” “Racism gets on my nerves,” and “More love, courage, togetherness,” as they made their way through Vienna before gathering outside the Hofburg imperial palace.

The rally was held on the eve of the first anniversary since Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party, OeVP, and its far-right Freedom Party partner, known as the FPOe, took office on December 18, 2017.

Protesters hold flags during a rally a year after the forming of a government by the conservative Oevp – FPOe parties on December 15, 2018 in Vienna. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Under their leadership, Austria — which also holds the EU presidency until the end of December — has introduced a series of tough anti-immigration measures over the past year.

In the latest move, the government last month finalized the details of welfare cuts aimed at immigrants, in a move criticized by anti-poverty campaigners and church groups.

Protesters hold a sign with a crossed out swastika during a rally a year after the forming of a government by the conservative Oevp – FPOe parties on December 15, 2018 in Vienna. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

“We want a different Austria,” said MP Andreas Schieder of the opposition Social Democrats (SPOe) told AFP.

Schieder is the SPOe’s lead candidate in the European Parliament election in May 2019, when traditional parties face major challenges from far-right and euroskeptic populists.

On Thursday, government officials rebuffed an Israeli report that an overhaul of citizenship laws was being stymied by the ruling coalition over opposition to granting citizenship to descendants of Holocaust victims.

The report, in the Haaretz newspaper, had said the Freedom party was blocking the law because “it would set a precedent for other foreigners.”

Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 29, 2018 (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Since FPOe’s rise to parliament in Austria’s 2017 election, Israel has maintained a policy of keeping official contact with the party at the civil service level only, avoiding any contact with ministers, including Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl.

Austrian Jews are also staunchly opposed to the party arguing that it has not done enough to distance itself from its anti-Semitic past and that it still promotes problematic positions.

Illustrative: People hold up placards featuring Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) and Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPOE) during protests against Austria’s far right holding its so-called Academics Ball in Vienna, Austria on January 26, 2018. (AFP/APA/HANS PUNZ)

With growth of three percent expected for this year and one of the eurozone’s lowest unemployment rates at 5.6 percent, Austria’s coalition is still riding high in opinion polls.

Kurz’s People’s Party won 31.5 percent of the vote in last year’s elections, but now scores around 35 percent in the opinion polls.

The Freedom Party, led by Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, has slipped only slightly from the 26 percent of the vote it won last year to around 24 percent.

Founded in 1956, the party emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched after World War II by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights. Its first chief was an ex-officer from the Waffen SS and its last one was Joerg Haider, the controversial son of a former Nazi party official.

Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the right-wing Austria Freedom Party (FPOe), attends the party’s election event following Austrian parliamentary elections on October 15, 2017 in Vienna, Austria. (Alex Domanski/Getty Images, via JTA)

Haider attracted negative publicity by praising the Third Reich’s “orderly” employment policy, calling SS veterans “decent people” and describing concentration camps as “punishment camps.” He was killed in a car crash in 2008.

Under FPOe’s current leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, now Austria’s vice chancellor, the party has made strides to distance itself from pro-Nazi views and has adopted strong pro-Israel positions.

In December, Strache said Vienna was “striving for an honest, sustainable and friendly contact with Israel,” and vowed his far-right party would be “an essential partner in Europe’s fight against anti-Semitism.”

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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