The Austrian Freedom party (FPÖ) has a bit of international notoriety, thanks to the rhetorical provocations that its late leader Jörg Haider used to issue about his country’s Nazi past. Before he died in 2008 while driving drunk between a gay bar he allegedly favored and his mother’s 90th birthday party, he would, for instance, describe the Waffen SS as “honorable men.” One can debate what Haider meant by these things, but not their reception in the country’s capital. They went down like poison in “Red” Vienna, Western Europe’s most left-wing city, where Social Democrats have ruled without a pause since 1945. Vienna never votes for parties like Haider’s. Something must be going on, then, because on October 11, the Viennese gave the FPÖ, now led by Haider’s onetime rival Heinz-Christian Strache, almost a third of the vote. Two weeks before that, Strache’s party doubled its score in Upper Austria, tallying more than 30 percent.
Strache cannot claim the credit. An earnest dental technician, he had a hard time firing up crowds in Vienna’s Leopold-Mistiger-Platz when he spoke there a week before the election. He’s querulous. If Haider’s speeches were tirades, Strache’s are more like tizzies. Nor is the country generally drifting towards the FPÖ’s platform, to judge from Strache’s mumbled support for the principle of equal pay for women. The earthquake in Austrian politics is explained by one thing alone: Shortly before the Upper Austria elections, 61 percent of voters told pollsters they were preoccupied with “refugees and asylum.” No other issue came close.
The flood of Middle Eastern refugees into Austria began in the summer. By September they were arriving at the southeastern border at the rate of 10,000 or 12,000 a day. These migrants are associated in the public mind with the war in Syria but, in fact, come from throughout the Muslim world—Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Most of them are on their way to Germany. The great majority are young men. By the end of this year, Austrian authorities estimate, 375,000 will have passed through the country, and a quarter of them will have stayed to apply for asylum. Austria will have added 1 percent to its population in just about three months, with virtually all the newcomers Muslims. When migrant families follow, as they inevitably do, the effect will be multiplied. Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, warns that the biggest tide of migrants “is yet to come.”
Austria is unprepared. Yes, the country took in a lot of migrants in the wake of the Balkan wars in the early 1990s. But these were people from 200 miles away, whose grandparents had been subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only in the last couple of years has there been significant non-European immigration to Austria at all. Vienna’s native poor have noticed that those who can claim to be part of a foreign “humanitarian emergency” get privileged access to public housing. The country has budgeted about $600 million for refugees, but a government study leaked in September set the true estimate (including family unification) at $14 billion over four years. Remember that Austria is about a fortieth the size of the United States. A proportionate human wave passing through this country would consist of 15 million people and cost as much as the Obama stimulus package.
Social Democratic prime minister Werner Faymann has sped the migrants on their way into Europe. Strache prefers the tack of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—to defend his country’s border with fences and criminal penalties. He has been criticized for lacking a specific plan, but, like Donald Trump, he is running in a climate where plans have been used not to solve problems but to dupe voters. No one wants to hear another plan. What people want is a token that a candidate is on their side. The Christian Democratic ÖVP ran on the slogan “The Answer in Hard Times: Reason” and wound up in single digits, almost swept out of Viennese politics altogether.
It is almost all German chancellor Angela Merkel’s fault. In August she made a big mistake. Refugees who had once hoped to wait out the Syrian war in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey had been losing patience and started trickling into Europe. By this summer, traffickers had built a profitable streamlined route that could efficiently accommodate millions of clients/migrants. In August, Merkel announced that Germany would probably accept 800,000 Syrians this year. Syrians—and most anyone who believed he could pass for Syrian—took that as an invitation. The government estimate has been steadily revised upwards, and the new figure stands at 1.5 million.