Burgenland’s ‘red-blue’ coalition of shame
July 29, 2015 — Comment
Written by Liz Fekete
The Labour Party is debating how to win back votes from UKIP. Meanwhile, in Austria, the Burgenland Social Democrats have set a worrying precedent, entering into a coalition with the extreme Right in the provincial legislative assembly.
The Burgenland Social Democrats have entered into a coalition with the extreme-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). The shocking news comes at a time of increasing political rhetoric against asylum seekers in Austria. The national government led by the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), has refused to take a single asylum seeker from Italy and Greece under a European Commission-brokered solidarity plan to relieve pressure on these two frontline countries.
Social Democrats threatened in heartlands
‘We used to have a joke here in Burgenland’, Dagmar Schindler, a prominent anti-fascist, told us. ‘We used to ask ourselves why do we need the Freedom Party here in Burgenland, when we already have Hans Niessl.’
Dagmar is referring to the governor of the Burgenland SPÖ, Hans Niessl, described by lawyer Dr Wolfgang Weeber to IRR News as ‘an old school politician raised in the era of the Iron Curtain, who views everything from the outside as a threat’.
But today, it is not the threat from the Communist east that preoccupies Niessl and his colleagues in eastern Austria, but the ‘threat’ posed by migrants and asylum seekers crossing into Austria via the so-called ‘Balkans land route’.
Austrian politics are defined by the country’s federal system. The federal parliament is in Vienna, but governance is shared with the nine provinces, or Länder, each with its own legislature. Despite the failure of the anti-immigration movement PEGIDA to gain a foothold in Austria, in many villages and towns, locals, sometimes encouraged by the FPÖ are mobilising against any attempt to disperse asylum seekers to their neighbourhood.
Nationally, the FPÖ now threatens the Social Democrats’ core vote; it claims to be the largest blue-collar party in Austria.
Another peculiar feature of the Austrian political system is the power-sharing arrangement between different political parties. Known as Proporz (proportionality), it was created after the Second World War by the centre-Right and centre-Left ostensibly to ensure social and political stability. The fact that several Austrian provincial constitutions mandate that political parties with a certain level of representation in the legislature be included in executive government, has ensured that, in the past, the FPÖ has enjoyed spells in provincial government. There was a short period, too, of EU-wide sanctions, when the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) invited the FPÖ, at that time led by Jӧrg Haider, to form the national government of Austria.
But this time something different has happened. It is the Social Democrats, previously proponents of a cordon sanitaire policy against the extreme Right, who have cut a deal with a party with an explicit German-nationalist orientation, a particularly sensitive stance for Austrians, given the Anschluss.
The May election for the Burgenland assembly
Burgenland is Austria’s least populous province, with fewer than 300,000 residents. To the east, it borders Hungary, and has short borders with Slovakia and Slovenia to the north-east and south-east respectively. On 31 May, voters went to the polls. The SPÖ, which had previously governed with the ÖVP, had ruled out any further co-operation with the centre Right, hoping for an absolute majority. But with the Social Democrats leading Austria’s grand coalition, and presiding over record levels of unemployment and cuts in pensions, its share of the vote dropped, to the benefit of the FPÖ which upped its poll six points to 15 per cent. The FPÖ did even better in neighbouring Styria which was the other province to go to the polls on the same date. There its share of the vote rose threefold, to 27.1 per cent. But the Social Democrats there weren’t prepared to cut a deal, unlike in Burgenland.
Social Democrat values and UK parallels
What is striking about the economic picture in Burgenland as well as voting patterns, is the similarity with the UK in terms of its north-south divide. In the north of England, many working-class voters, who previously voted Labour, have jumped ship to UKIP. In the UK, northerners resent the way capital and investment accumulates around London and the richer South. And in Austria, too, there is a sharp east-west divide, with unemployment far higher in the small towns and villages of Burgenland than in the Alpine regions, for instance. To get an idea of this, recent figures suggest that unemployment in Tyrol is running at 0.2 per cent, compared to 11.1 per cent in Burgenland.
Burgenland was part of Hungary till 1921 and the loss of its major urban centres (which remained part of Hungary) was a severe blow to its economy. When Austria entered the EU in 1995, Burgenland was identified as an economically underdeveloped region and was ascribed Objective 1 status. Poverty lent it a reputation as the ‘red’ state, one whose governance stood up for the poor.
As economic development picks up, Niessl seems to be steering the SPÖ onto entirely different terrain. He dwells on issues of threat and security, turning the FPÖ – a party that attacks not just migrants and refugees, but the poor and the homeless – into an ally. Indeed, at a press conference on 5 June, where the coalition was first announced, Johann Tschürtz, the FPÖ leader (and a former policeman), confirmed that as far as he was concerned there were no significant differences between the two parties. To get an idea of what this means, consider that at the last general election, the FPÖ popularised the slogan: ‘Love your neighbour. For me, those are our Austrians’. Other slogans included ‘new homes instead of new mosques’ and ‘jobs for our folks’.
EU asylum crisis drives rhetoric against migration
But there is a central issue driving Burgenland politics – namely, migration and the asylum crisis, both domestically and internationally. Hostility and violence towards asylum seekers has reached alarming levels across the EU and the attitude of some member states to a modest proposal by the EU to re-allocate roughly 40,000 refugees from Italy and Greece and accept 20,000 displaced people from refugee camps outside Europe has not been helpful. The UK and Ireland have already opted out of justice and home affairs policies and therefore don’t have to participate in the scheme. Meanwhile, a number of eastern European countries as well as Austria have sought to undermine the scheme from within.
To be fair, Austria already has its own asylum crisis and internal relocation issues. Amongst other things, the humanitarian crisis in Greece has ensured that a record number of displaced people are travelling through Europe, taking the ‘Balkans land route’, passing through Serbia and Hungary and then on to Austria and Germany. While the total figure of new arrivals to Austria was 7,200 in 2014, the projected figure for 2015 is expected to be more than 70,000. (From January to May, 20,000 asylum claims were registered.)
International attention is now focused on the Hungarian proposal to build a fence at ten locations on its 175 km border with Serbia (work on an ‘experimental fence’ in the southern border town of Mórahalom, near Szeged, has just started). But the Austrian government has intensified internal border controls (as has the Bavarian government which has threatened to ‘fend off refugees’ with ‘rigorous measures’). It has also reached an agreement with Slovakia whereby asylum seekers will be sent to processing centres in Bratislava, to be accommodated and processed 30 km away from the Austrian border.
Rebellion in the Länder
Austria, like Germany, operates a dispersal system. In the past, asylum seekers, having completed an initial application at one of two federally-run reception centres, are allocated to one of the nine provinces via a quota system where they are mostly accommodated in private housing, much of which is sub-standard or in isolated areas. It is support for this dispersal system, already malfunctioning in recent years, which has now reached breaking point.
When the federal government attempted to enforce a quota at the provincial level in June, many of the provinces rebelled. The squabbles and the lack of solidarity mean that asylum seekers are staying for longer periods in overcrowded reception centres. The Traiskirchen camp in Lower Austria is dangerously overcrowded. It was built to accommodate 480 people, but is now crammed with 4,000 people, among them 1,300 children and unaccompanied minors. Photos were leaked to the press in July, with Klaus Schwertner, director of Caritas Vienna, commenting that, ‘These are conditions you would expect to find in refugee camps in Iraq or Jordan’. While the attitude of the local authorities might be cynical, at a grassroots level, responses are much more humane. A petition has been launched calling on the federal president Heinz Fischer to intervene and Refugees Welcome is encouraging the public to use their spare rooms to ease the accommodation crisis. And last week, the federal government announced its intention to ease the overcrowding by erecting seven ‘distribution centres’ across Austria.
Burgenland and Carinthia (until 2013 a FPÖ stronghold) are amongst Länder that have been most stubborn, even undermining a government scheme to turn military barracks into asylum accommodation as a last resort. Last year, the Burgenland assembly, despite claims to be short of cash, pre-empted a government attempt to sequester the Bleiburg barracks by purchasing it. It had maintained that the barracks – too close to swimming pools, playing fields, schools, and too close to the border with Slovenia – would be ‘a magnet for people traffickers’.
Dr. Weeber is clearly worried. He told us that all the pensions and guest houses are already full to capacity. There is a shortfall of one hundred places and he is deeply concerned about what might happen next.
Increased xenophobia as protests grow
In Austria, each village, town or city has its own mayor and, to complicate things still further, so does each district (which comprises various municipalities, here the leader is referred to as Bezirkshauptmann or –frau). There is a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude informed by threat scenarios and xenophobia that is developing. ‘It is the district and other mayors’, explains Dr Weeber again, ‘who are terrified by local reactions, that are putting up all sorts of objections. They constantly talk about asylum seekers in terms of the threat they pose to women and children.’
This ‘nimbyism’ is certainly not confined to Burgenland. In Carinthia, the FPÖ was kicked out of government in 2013 amidst corruption scandals.
But it is fighting back, alongside the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) organising protests against a new asylum centre in the municipality of Ossiach, claiming it would be a ‘burden’ and a ‘total mistake’ that would impact negatively on tourism. Meanwhile, in Linz, the Social Democrats have been accused, by Offensive Against the Right, of out-doing the FPÖ’s rhetoric. An SPÖ poster reads: ‘Are you against a big asylum-seekers’ hostel in Linz, too?’ If the Social Democrats mimic FPÖ positions, conclude the anti-fascists, it is the FPÖ which benefits. At the same time, the integral foundational principles of social democracy, such as fairness and equality, are undermined from within.
Where threat scenarios lead
Today, Burgenland’s economy has improved, ironically thanks to infrastructural links eastwards. Since 2007, EU subsidies allowed Burgenland to position itself as an economic hub for the Central European region. Despite this, Dagmar Schindler explains, ‘the trademark of Hans Niessl is one of an escalating rhetoric against migrants from the east’. This is particularly culpable as Burgenland has significant Hungarian and Croat minorities. ‘In the run-up to the election it was more of the same. Niessl was constantly emphasising issues of border security and criminality. Never mind that his fear-mongering was not backed up by the statistics’, she adds.
The Burgenland precedent could pave the way for similar coalitions in other provinces, in the capital, Vienna, and at the federal level. Already, the Offensive Against the Right has warned about the danger for the future, as the FPÖ and SPÖ rhetoric collides in Linz as well as Burgenland.
Theirs is a critique that goes beyond mechanical questions about coalition-building with the extreme Right. It raises fundamental questions about the future of social democracy in Europe if its integral values – equality, fairness, justice – disintegrate from within as it embraces extreme-right principles of nativism and racism.
As Labour leader candidate Andy Burnham centres his bid to become his party’s next leader around an appeal to UKIP voters to return to the Labour fold, his campaign team would be well advised to learn the lessons from the precedent set by Burgenland’s Social Democrats and ask themselves how far they are prepared to go to win back UKIP voters.
Sign a petition to the Austrian President Heinz Fischer calling for better living conditions for asylum seekers in Traiskirchen
Offensive Against the Right (Offensive gegen Rechts)
We asked a spokesperson for the Governor Hans Niessl for a comment but we did not receive a reply at the time of going to press. Thanks to Lotta Schwedler for her help with translation work.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.