Austrian Far-Right Party Plays On Fear Of Criminal Migrants In Campaigns

May 21, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's head back overseas to Austria now, where voters will elect a new president. The post is largely ceremonial, but the race is being closely watched in Europe as it copes with its migrant crisis. It's closely watched because Austria could be the first European Union country to choose a head of state from a far-right party. Joanna Kakissis has been covering the story from Vienna and sent us this report.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: At a boisterous campaign rally in a working-class Vienna neighborhood, Norbert Hofer, the charismatic, gun-toting airplane mechanic who hopes to be president of Austria talked about foreigners.

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NORBERT HOFER: (Speaking German).

KAKISSIS: "Those people who don't appreciate our country," he said, "will go to war for the Islamic State or rape women. I tell those people, this is not your home." More than 90,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Austria last year. And Hofer's party, the Freedom Party, has risen to prominence by playing on fears that migrants are criminals. Hofer himself has said that he wants to stop what he calls an invasion by Muslims.

I meet Austrian rapper Esra Ozmen in a lively western Vienna neighborhood settled by immigrants, including Turks. She says the Freedom Party's anti-migrant rhetoric has even found support among a few Austrian Turks who are Muslim.

ESRA OZMEN: Because, yeah, the refugees come and take our jobs.

KAKISSIS: But she says most Austrian Turks worry that a Hofer win will make racism more visible. She explains how some Freedom Party supporters are already speaking to her.

OZMEN: We have the points, we have the voices, so shut up and go if you don't want to live in Austria. And before, this racism was hidden.

KAKISSIS: I meet newspaper editor Florian Klenk in the same neighborhood. He says even if Hofer does not win tomorrow, his party, which Austrians call the FPO, has already moved Austrian politics to the right.

FLORIAN KLENK: We have the problem that the FPO party presents themself as standing in the middle of society. But actually, they are not in the middle of society. They are not a centrist party. They are a right-wing party. A lot of positions that the FPO party have are extremist.

KAKISSIS: But political analyst Eva Linsinger says the FPO has also tapped into people's unhappiness with the establishment. She says many Austrians view their own government, as well as European Union leaders, as weak and indecisive.

EVA LINSINGER: If you compare it to different countries, we've got this phenomenon that people seem to be attracted to persons who say, I'm going to take the lead. I'll do that and that and that. You've got it in America with your Donald Trump.

KAKISSIS: Hofer faces retired economics professor Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent supported by the Green Party, tomorrow. The election is expected to be close. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.