Brand me a neo-nazi if you like, but I’m a bit fed up with all the British media labeling the two right-wing parties who did so well in Austria yesterday as "far right". Cultural populists they might be, anti-EU integration they certainly are, but are they far right?
Take for example this photo in today’s Daily Mail. This is Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the Freedom Party, all dressed up looking for a place to go. But was this photo taken last week? Nope – this is HC (as he’s known) in his late teenage years. One would hope he had slightly more maturity these days, but ultimately this is a photo taken two decades ago. Is the Daily Mail seriously suggesting that HC the teen has to be the same man today? That’s like arguing that since Tony Blair supported nuclear disarmament in his 1983 election leaflet, anybody voting for him in 1997 was voting to scrap Trident.
And frankly, that’s a tiny gun. This one to the right (and the woman driving it) is much more impressive. Politicians and guns eh?
Here’s the Guardian‘s take on it:
Austria was shaken by a political earthquake yesterday when the neo-fascist right emerged from a general election as a contender to be the strongest political force in the country for the first time.
The combined forces of the extreme right took 29% of the vote, with Jörg Haider almost tripling the share of his breakaway Movement for Austria’s Future to 11%, while his successor as Freedom party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, saw his party soar to 18%.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes fascism:
Fascism is a totalitarian nationalist political ideology and mass movement that is concerned with notions of cultural decline or decadence, and which seeks to achieve a millenarian national rebirth by exalting the nation, as well as promoting cults of unity, strength and purity.
Now let’s break that down and examine the FPÖ and the BZÖ:
- Totalitarian – the two right wing parties cannot in any sense be called totalitarian. Both Strache and Haider are committed democrats and neither of them have any intention or desire to undermine Austria’s Parliamentary system.
- Nationalist – Yes, the two parties are nationalist, but you would need to define what that meant. If it means nationalistic in the sense that the NSDAP was in Germany, glorifying the nation and believing in the racial superiority of the German people, then the answer is "no". If however you mean that a nationalism that takes pride in national culture and history and identity, and seeks to preserve it against an Americanisation of western culture then the answer is "yes".
It needs to be recognised that there is much greater sense of national cultural identity in Austria then there is in the Home Counties. It’s only when you start going north of the border and beyond Glasgow and Edinburgh that you would experience anything comparable to the sense of "Heimat" that the ordinary people of Austria have. In my Gran’s home town every second person walks around in national dress. They’re not uber-nationalists looking to expand the nation’s borders to cover the old Habsburg domains. They’re simply men and women who have a strong sense of being Austrian and being part of their local community.
So what do the right wing parties believe. Well according to today’s Daily Mail:
[Strache] has also demanded a halt to immigration and wants to create a ministry for repatriating foreigners.
That makes him sound as though he wants to expel all non-Austrians from the country. In fact, the FPÖ manifesto has a commitment to providing asylum for political, racial and religious refugees. What they are opposed to is economic migration into Austria. They are also opposed to giving anyone Austrian citizenship (and the vote) when they cannot speak German. There are no plans for a specific ministry of repatriation, simply a commitment to spend more resources on finding and deporting illegal immigrants.
When talking about immigration and Austria I always tell the story of my Gran’s handyman, a gentleman from Sarajevo who had fled to Austria when the civil war broke out in Bosnia. He had settled in my Gran’s home town, his son had learnt German (with one of the thickest Styrian accents you’ve ever heard – he was a toddler when they came as refugees) and the family had worked hard to grow the father’s business. When the civil war was over, the government moved to have him and his family deported back to Bosnia, but he argued that since his son had only really known Austria as a home and only spoke German they should be allowed to stay.
Who were the local politicians who supported him? Not the Social Democrats or the People’s Party who in Government at the time, but rather the local FPÖ who argued that since he had his own business, was paying tax and contributing to society, and since he and his family had learnt German and were encouraging their son to aim for a place at the senior high school, they should be welcomed and permitted to stay. Far from being racist in their approach to immigration, the "neo-fascists" were the ones who (succesfully) supported his appeal to stay.
So where does this leave us? The obvious conclusion is that the use of terms like "neo-nazi" and "extreme right wing" are more to do with the employment of emotive perjorative rather than accurate use of language. The reality is that the right wing parties in Austria are anti-EU cultural populists, nothing less but equally nothing more. They are certainly not in any sense fascist, nor are they really racist in any politically dangerous sense.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of reasons not to vote for Strache or Haider. At the final FPÖ rally before the vote Strache referred to muslim women wearing the veil as "female ninjas". Strache’s economic policies are badly costed and his response to the current credit crisis makes one wonder whether he has ever read a basic book on economics. But conversely, even my aunt, a staunch anti-right winger grudgingly conceeded to me last week that Haider as Governor of Carinithia had done amazing things in the region.
Would I vote for Haider or Strache? Probably not, though I can understand how many right of centre Austrian voters have turned to them, disillusioned by the performance of the mainstream Peoples’ Party and their perception of how EU regulations are damaging traditional Austrian life. More importantly, are they neo-nazis? Not in the slightest, unless you consider the 2001 UK Conservative Party manifesto to be neo-nazi, because the similarity between that and the FPÖ platform at this weekend’s election is remarkable.
Over to you.