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October 13, 2010
 by Steven Hill

TRIAL BY FIRE: POPULIST PARTY MAKES GAINS IN VIENNA'S MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS; THE CHALLENGE OF RAINBOW EUROPE...On Sunday, electoral fireworks went off here in Vienna, Austria. I observed the municipal elections, and the populist, anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPO) nearly doubled its vote total from the last election to 27 percent while the long-time governing Social Democrats (SPO) lost 5 percent since the last election, finishing with 45 percent and forcing them into a coalition government for the first time since the 1990s (since previously they had always won a majority of the vote outright). Their coalition partner will either be the Green Party (which also lost votes and finished with about 12 percent) or the center-right conservatives the People’s Party (which lost votes, finishing with about 13 percent). Curiously, Vienna recently began allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote, and it had been presumed that young people would be more left than right. But the FPO had won a sizable number of votes from young people too (more on that below).

On election night I wandered around the post-election campaign tents of the major parties, situated near the plaza in front of city hall (the Rathaus). The crowd at the SPO was pretty subdued, considering that they were the front runner by far and would be the leader in a coalition government. But sometimes life is not about what you have but what you have lost - it’s that ‘glass half empty instead of half full’ thing again -- and the SPO had lost its majority support for the first time in over a decade. For 'Red Vienna', a social democrat stronghold for decades, this was cold water in the face. The SPD leaders and rank and file were not in a mood to be consoled.

But over at the FPO tent the crowd was giddily jubilant. I wandered around inside among the hundreds of supporters as the party's leaders paraded around onstage. Thick Germanic voices bellowed their victory chants and songs, shouting "F-PAY-EW, F-PAY-EW," and large mugs of yellow pilsner were hoisted high. The star of the show was the FPO's hunky telegenic leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who egged on the crowd. Strache's populism had struck an electoral chord, especially in some of Vienna's old industrial white working class areas, now heavily populated by immigrant families. He captured more than a third of the vote in some of these districts that usually had supported the Social Democrats. Strache ran strongly on banning minarets and Islamic headgear, familiar themes for anti-immigrant parties whether in Switzerland, Sweden, France and the Netherlands. With minor local variations, the campaign issues for populist parties across Europe continue to be Islamophobia and anti-immigration, which are closely connected to economic security and crime.

After enjoying the hospitality of the FPO’s beer and apple strudel, I began interviewing many of its rank and filers under the big top. This was a random selection, not a scientific one, but I have to say that the people I talked to were mostly reasonable, not some foaming at the mouth neo-Nazi skinheads. There were some ‘baldies’ in the tent -- who may or may not have been skinheads -- but they were a tiny fraction of the hundreds there. The concerns vented by the people I spoke with raise important questions about how relatively wealthy societies (like Austria -- only 8 million people, about the population of New York City) can open up their borders and admit immigrants in a way that doesn’t threaten the high quality of life that they have. The Austrian support system for families and workers is very generous and comprehensive to a degree Americans can scarcely comprehend, precisely calibrated to ensure a healthy and productive populace but at the same time to prevent bankrupting the government. Austria’s social capitalism is cut from a different clothe than the American trickle down, Wall Street capitalism. All Austrians receive health care, paid parental leave (following the birth of a child), affordable child care, monthly kiddie stipends (to pay for diapers, baby clothes, food, etc), paid sick leave, inexpensive university education, ample retirement pensions, supportive elderly care, generous unemployment compensation, vocational training, efficient mass transportation, affordable housing, and more. They have an average of five weeks of paid vacation (compared with two for Americans) and a shorter work week, plus a plethora of religious holidays thrown in.

But this is not a “welfare state” as Americans understand that term; this is not about people kicking back, on the dole, collecting government handouts. This is about how a society provides support for families and individuals so they can be healthy and productive worker bees. In other words, this is about WORKING, and Austrian workers are some of the most productive in the world. That’s why their standard of living is higher than most Americans, since only better-off Americans -- those who work for a wealthy corporation or are a member of Congress -- get Austrian level supports for families and individuals. Even ethnic minorities in Europe, including immigrants after a waiting period, benefit from the same generous workfare supports that native-borns enjoy, so they don’t generally sink to the desolate condition that can be found still today in many minority and immigrant communities in the United States, even among African Americans whose families arrived centuries ago.

A country so precisely designed can’t simply open its borders and allow huge influxes of newcomers, since that would threaten to overwhelm and bankrupt their system. Austria has been willing to absorb smaller numbers of newcomers but even that process becomes controversial when the newcomers are perceived as being both culturally different and not wishing to “fit in” to the Austrian way, including speaking German. Fitting in is very important to Austrians, who are an admirable people in many ways but can be fairly rigid in their approach to life.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that these are legitimate concerns and cannot simply be swept under the rug. The unfortunate part is that it takes a populist party like the Freedom Party to put these issues on the table, because they tend to do it in a provocative and unconstructive way (for example, I have been told that for a while the FPO included a link on their website to a video game where the player could shoot at and blow up minarets and mosques). But I think it’s worth considering for a moment the aggrieved case they make.

As I talked to the FPO supporters, they bristled at the idea that they are racists. They reiterated over and over that Austrians are a generous people who are happy to help people in need, needing political asylum, etc. (and there is evidence that this claim is at least partially true; soon I will post an interview I did with a Roma leader in Vienna who claims that Austria has one of the best integration policies for Roma in Europe). But they claimed that “all they were asking for” was that the Turkish Muslims who came to live there become Austrians, i.e. learn to speak German, find jobs (Austria has a relatively low unemployment rate even during this crisis, only about 4 percent), respect Austrian law (instead of sharia law), stop stealing and intimidating people, and don’t simply “take take take” from the system.

When I asked them “Do all Turkish Muslims act in this way,” each interviewee said “No, certainly not.” When I asked them “What percent act that way?” the responses ranged from “fifty percent” to “I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s too much.”

In general, as is usually the case in these matters, there seems to be a lack of credible or widely available data about how big the problem is. What percent of Viennese Turks don’t speak German, what percent go to mosque, what percent don’t have jobs, what percent are involved in crimes, etc. Even some of the policy experts I asked don’t seem to have a good handle on this, and so average people respond with answers like “a lot,” or “too much.” So a good deal of this is based on public perception.

One woman I interviewed spoke about being intimidated and once even threatened with a knife by young Turkish males. But she freely acknowledged in response to my question that not all Turkish males act this way, even that most don’t. Yet she is visited on a regular basis, as are many of her colleagues under the FPO tent, by an uneasy feeling that this “element” is taking over her city and country. Even if the facts happened to be widely available, her perceptions may be impervious to the facts.

The case of 16 and 17 year olds voting for the Freedom Party perhaps best illustrates the challenge. They voted for the first time recently, and at first the perception was these youthful voters would overwhelmingly mark the Green or Social Democrat lists. But it hasn’t actually worked out that way, many are voting FPO. I did not see any youngsters there in the tent -- presumably they were home in bed since it was nearly midnight -- so had to settle for asking a few adults why they thought young people were voting for their party. Each person I asked gave the same resounding response: “Because young people in schools are bearing the brunt of this. Some schools and classes are 50 percent Turkish,” said one white man. “And many of the young Turks in schools are poorly educated, don’t speak good German and are troublemakers.” In Salzburg (in eastern Austria), when I asked some American associates living there about this question, one woman told me about how one day some young Turks threatened to beat up her son if he didn’t give them his hat. Others had similar stories. One gets the impression of a bit of a West Side story situation where the Jets and the Sharks are facing off in the schools, with the battle lines drawn along ethnic/cultural lines.

So it seems to me that many of these grievances are legitimate, or at least legitimate-sounding. Perhaps these polite, anti-immigrant Venetians were just good at sounding reasonable. But what is also clear is that neither the FPO supporters nor their leaders have much to offer in the way of solutions. Possibly because there aren’t any easy solutions, and none that will solve this challenge in the short term. As the United States shows, the process of integration takes generations. It requires constant pressure to change the natural course of the stream, and it takes responsible leaders who over time craft responsible policy. Austria only passed its first anti-discrimination law a few years ago, so the political system has only begun the process of making the Turkish Muslims feel welcome. Not that long ago signs were widely displayed in shop windows that read “Auslanders need not apply” (Auslander = outsider = non-Austrians). And the media, especially the print media in Austria, Germany and elsewhere does not help. Their alarmist headlines obscure Muslims’ own grievances, as well as their motivation for living in Europe today: the vast majority go there to better themselves and to secure a brighter future for their children, not to promote a Taliban fantasy of reestablishing the Caliphate. Most Muslim immigrants, like people everywhere, simply aspire to their own version of the middle class dream, including its secularist-based quality of life. Most Muslims in Austria and elsewhere in Europe don’t even go to mosque, just as most Christians don’t go to church. Your average Muslim immigrants and their second- and third-generation children are law-abiding residents, lunch-pail Ahmeds and Ameeras, looking to find their niche. That’s why they endured the perils of immigration to begin with.

In most ways what Austria and Europe is facing is an old, old story, a classic tale of a dominant mainstream trying to incorporate—or expel—newcomers in its midst. Ethnic minorities and immigrants have always been mistreated, across the world and down through history, and not until their sheer numbers reach a critical mass within the overall population is their condition ever addressed. The minorities appear to be suddenly living in their midst, even though most have been there for decades. It’s as if suddenly the blind can see, and they are shocked by what they have missed. At that point, a populist movement inevitably arises to deport them, only to find that it is too late to do so for any self-respecting democracy that supports human rights, since the immigrants’ numbers are too great and they inhabit a crucial economic niche as low-wage workers performing essential functions that native workers won’t do. So a parallel struggle emerges over how to integrate them or at least to tolerate them, and that process plays out across decades and not always according to design. In fact, as the history of immigration and integration in the United States shows, things can get downright messy.

The United States, which has a far higher percentage of ethnic minorities than any European country has today or likely ever will have, long ago reached a demographic tipping point and began its stumbling efforts toward integration. But Europe never before has had to deal with the number of ethnic minorities who now have settled in. Only recently has that number reached this critical mass in which European nationals of North African, Turkish or Arab origin not only are more visible but also are starting to push for more rights. Once the racial demographics have changed beyond a certain no-return point, the minorities’ elbows become sharp enough for them to say, “Move over, I’m riding on the bus too.” Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Britain, and the Netherlands, as well as many cities in other European countries, have reached this moment first, but it’s just the onset of an irreversible course.

Now on the other side of the demographic tipping point, Europe increasingly is faced with some stark choices. Sealing the borders and cutting off immigration, or deporting existing immigrants, is not an option because of white Europe’s own shrinking population problem and the need to counteract that with increased immigration for the good of the economy. So that presents an even sharper dilemma: integration or apartheid. But no country that claims to be a democracy can long suppress its minorities by means of a discriminatory police state without losing its soul. So that leaves only one realistic option: integration. There simply is no other practical course. Europe, increasingly, appears to understand this. A Rainbow Europe is in the offing, but it’s going to be noisy and messy for years to come.

And back in Vienna, the Freedom Party’s 27 percent of the vote will be overwhelmingly outvoted by whatever majority coalition emerges, headed by the Social Democrats, so none of their proposed policies will come to pass. They will comprise a noisy opposition, a thumb in the eye to the majority, and if the history of populist movements in Austria as well as in Europe and the US is any guide, they will see their support drop within a couple of election cycles as the economic downturn levels off and it becomes clear to more voters that the FPO doesn’t offer any practical solutions. But in the meantime, in their own quarrelsome way, they have identified a seismic fault line in modern wealthy societies, and that fault line will continue to open and close over the next few decades as societies shake out their nerves over the earthquake tensions of immigration and ‘auslanders/outsiders’ in a globalized world.

Next: I will post a fascinating interview with a Roma leader in Vienna. And get this -- his last name is Sarkozi, nearly identical to that of French president Nicolas Sarkozy who recently began expelling Roma from France. Talk about coincidences.

Steven Hill 6:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

Again, a good analysis for an outsider! Since you have left Vienna, a coalition of Greens and Socialists is forming with a Greek immigrant woman likely to be the vice mayor and a facebook/twitter campaign/demonstration has made the hard line Minister of Interior turn around on her position expelling well integrated children out of the country. The students have demonstrated with their professors about the overcrowded conditions in the unversities (it is not as perfect as you portray the education and social system - we have 500,000 people in poverty situation- 150,000 children) The integration policies have largely failed and Austria could learn from US about improving race relations and integration. I am very sorry I missed your talks in Salzburg and Vienna

Posted by: Michael Platzer on October 24, 2010 at 7:22 AM | PERMALINK

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