By Rosa Methol
When I moved to Austria for the beginning of my Erasmus term in January, I was more interested in the fairy-tale landscapes, strudel and beer than anything else. I knew nothing of the political situation and truthfully hadn’t considered that I might actually gain an opinion during the seven short months of my stay.
Nevertheless, culture is inextricably linked to politics and so I made an effort to try to gauge a general consensus from the people I got to know. My first set of flatmates were avidly right-wing and seemed to have a host of unpalatable prejudices to go with their political persuasion. Perhaps this can be marginally excused owing to their isolated upbringings in small mountain villages. Maybe it is harder to empathise with refugees and victims of racial discrimination when you don’t watch the news, have only ever known white people and have not experienced real hardship yourself. Besides, I thought, surely these opinions were held by a small minority?
Events in Austria over the past weekend, however, have proved that it is not such an insignificant minority of Austrians who have swung as far to the right as The Freedom Party (Freedom Party Österreich or FPO) dares to swing. Many Austrians, frustrated by increasing numbers of migrants desperate for asylum, seem to have been won over by Norbert Hofer’s anti-immigration campaign. It would appear that they want to follow the example of Wels, the small Austrian town which has an FPO mayor and where nursery school children must know by heart five German-language songs and five poems, lest their families lose their benefits. On Monday, Hofer’s opposition, Alexander Van der Bellen (a pro-EU independent candidate, backed by the Greens) won the election with an extremely close 0.3% majority.
Verena Hoffman, an Austrian citizen and resident of Vienna summarized the fears of many after this close election, saying, “In the context of the refugee crisis, this is a door open for the extreme right in Europe. That open door is just 0.3% away.”
In light of the far right’s near victory, we must allow ourselves some time to reflect. Let Austria’s weekend of political drama be a warning to the rest of Europe that we cannot allow frustrations to cloud moral judgement and make us forget the sobering past that we believed we had overcome.