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Nov 2006 Journal

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Elections in Austria

October's parliamentary elections in Austria proved a mixed blessing for opponents of the Austrian far right. The ruling coalition of the centre-right ÖVP (Austrian People's Party) with the far-right FPÖ (Freedom Party) was defeated, and the FPÖ left the government, as the two parties no longer controlled a majority in parliament. Good riddance! At the time of writing, it seems likely that the SPÖ (Social Democrats), now the largest party, will form a new coalition government with the ÖVP.

But the FPÖ's vote, at 11.2 per cent, held up well, especially given that the party's leader, Jörg Haider, had split it, creating his own new secessionist BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria), which also squeaked into parliament, narrowly securing the 4 per cent of the vote required for a party to gain parliamentary representation. The far right has shown again that it has an entrenched following of some 15 per cent of the electorate, though this is some 10 per cent less than its high point in the elections of 1999.

The setback for Haider, the demagogue of the far right, is welcome, as his BZÖ looks likely to vanish from parliament next time, and with it the far right's only charismatic figure. Unfortunately, the FPÖ, the larger of the two right-wing frères ennemis, is controlled by elements yet more radical than Haider. In Austria, unlike (West) Germany, the task of confronting the nation's guilty past is evidently still incomplete, leaving a tangled backlash of guilt and resentment on which the far right can feed; its main appeal is to those who resent foreign immigrants. But the relatively modest performance of the far right in both elections since 1999 does perhaps show that a generational change has taken place in Austria and that the reservoir of antisemitic, neo-Nazi sentiment on which the FPÖ draws is gradually but irreversibly diminishing. Let us hope so!

... and in Germany

The elections in September in the Land of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in North-Eastern Germany gave rise to a good deal of inaccurate reporting. For the umpteenth time, the British press presented the local success of a neo-Nazi party as heralding its imminent entry into the Federal Parliament, the Bundestag. No far-right party has ever won a seat in the Bundestag, despite the successive waves of short-lived support for such parties at local level in the early 1950s, the late 1960s and the 1990s (and beyond in Eastern Germany). If I had £100 for every time I have read that local election results show that the Nazis are marching to power in Germany, I would not need to earn my bread writing this article.

In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the neo-Nazi NPD managed to win 7.3 per cent of the vote, placing it triumphantly in fifth place among the competing parties. Mecklenburg is a tiny Land, with 1.7 million inhabitants, some 2 per cent of the country's population. It is also one of the least representative; it has a rate of unemployment well over double that of the more populous Länder of the West and has suffered hugely from a drain of skilled labour, leaving its remaining poorly skilled workers competing for jobs with cheap Polish labour from across the border. If the best that the NPD can achieve, at the low point of an economic depression and in a region packed with the losers of reunification, is 7.3 per cent, then ...

The British press also largely ignored the elections in Berlin, which were held on the same day as those in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Berlin, the capital, has more than twice the population of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and is far more integrated into the national economy. But here the NPD failed even to obtain the 5 per cent of the vote needed to gain seats in the local parliament. Not that that will stop the misreporting of German politics in the British media, which seem to view events in European countries through the prism of national stereotypes: if it's France, it's knickers, if it's Italy, it's knockers, and in Germany it's got to be Nazis.
Anthony Grenville

previous article:A Central European tragedy
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