I've just returned from Vienna, Austria to do a story about the resurgence of the far right in the country. As you may have heard, the two parties fronted by Hans Christian Strache and Jorg Haider managed to win 29 percent of the vote in the recent general elections. Unlike the far right of old, the New Right as i like to call them don't goose-step down the Strasse's in brown shirts and red armbands, but prefer to wear button down chambray shirts and chino's or sharp suits. No longer do they meet in beer hall cellars to plot their ascendance but now instead prefer trendy wine bars and youth disco's.
What i found difficult to figure out whilst i was out there on assignment was, why do 30 percent of white Austrians feel that life is so dreadful that they have to vote for the far right ? The streets are squeeky clean and relatively empty even in rush hour , the standard of living appears relatively high, there's a low crime rate and the immigrant population doesn'y exactly appear to be taking over !
I live in central London and know what a densely populated multicultural city with a large immigrant population looks like, and Vienna certainly isn't it. So Why, why why ? In this day and age i find it sickening that anyone could even contemplate voting for the likes of Strache or Haider. "Central Europeans are different" people say, is this true? Do the inhabitants of central Europe have a disposition towards Nazism, are the Germanic tribes inherently racist?
Apart from whinging about the number of Turks in their country, immigrants from the former Yugoslavia also had the finger pointed at them for putting a strain on Austria's resources. So except for the widespread xenophobia towards people originating from countries with an Islamic background that we witnessed, in fact anyone who isn't Austrian, whatever their complexion is to blame for the occasional crisp packet that is seen gently blowing down a Viennese street on a chill Autumn day, noisy neighbours that make you have to close your windows on a summers evening , waiting lists for social housing etc etc.
How dreadful for them! I remember as a child in Notting Hill having to close my bedroom window when the Spanish family down the road had their weekly, and rather nosiy family sunday lunch in the garden, or when the reggae sound system set up outside our home rehearsed early on a sunday morning for the Carnival. Did i wait with baited breath until i reached the age of 18 to run down to the nearest polling station and vote for the NF or BNP? No of course not, because in Britain i like to think that we tolerate other cultures and sometimes even embrace them.
What is worrying me though, with the credit crunch becoming more serious as the days go by and it's spread across the globe, and the long term fight against Islamic fundamentalism, could this phenomenon become worse? Could a tide of xenophobia sweep across Europe as it has in the past? Political views tend to polarize to the extremes when times are tough. Even in England perhaps? It's not a rare sight to see headlines in the right wing press in Britain about "floods" of immigrants from Eastern Europe undercutting the workforce and straining our welfare state. Similar sentiments to those expressed by many , but not all, on the streets of Vienna. In fact those same papers wrote similar headlines about Jewish immigrants in the 1930's. Could this happen elsewhere in Europe?
Now you might accuse me of being unfair towards Austrians, in fact 70 percent of the country voted for the more liberal parties, and that is true. We met plenty of nice Austrians who had no problem with living in a tolerant, multi cultural society , our translator and guide, himself a journalist, expressed the more liberal, majority view of the Austrian public . But 29 percent is still a large chunk of the population and many of them are young voters who care not about Austria's murky past and it's most famous son.
Austrians we spoke to who admitted to voting for Strache's Freedom Party, often started their sentences, with "i'm not a racist but..." a line i've heard many times myself spoken before following up with some racist vitriol. Many spoke of "protest" voting to force the ruling mainstream social democrats and conservatives into rethinking some of it's policies towards immigration, perhaps that's all it is, a protest vote, as happened in France several years back when Le Pen's party shocked the nation with a large share of the vote in the primaries before floundering in the main election. But it's a dangerous gamble nontheless for Austria, this was a general election and the far right now have a strong following in the heart of Europe.