“AS OF today, Austria is a dictatorship.”
Herbert Kickl, leader of Austria’s far-right party the FPÖ, reacted to the announcement of a new 10-day lockdown and a vaccination mandate with predictably vehement criticism.
The mandate, which will come into effect on February 1, is against everything the party claims to stand for, and a protest it has organised in Vienna later today is expected to see 10,000 people attend.
The strict measures are a response to Austria having some of the worst coronavirus statistics in western Europe: 15,809 new cases on Friday marked a record high, with no signs of infections slowing.
And its vaccination rates are worrying. Just 65 per cent of the population are double-jabbed, the lowest in Western Europe.
This latest announcement seems to be an embarrassing admission of failure for the government, and the latest in a long list of political blunders for Austria.
Just five days ago, the government announced a controversial lockdown which affected just those who are unvaccinated. Yesterday’s announcement shows the policy was too little, too late.
Why are Austria’s Covid statistics so bad? The answer could be quite simple: the people do not trust their politicians.
Trouble first started brewing after the 2016 national election. Austria’s conservative party, the ÖVP, won 31.5 per cent of the vote and teamed up with the FPÖ, who received 26 per cent, their second-highest result ever.
Austria is not, of course, the first country in Europe to have a far-right party in power.
And in the wake of the migrant crisis, the FPÖ’s anti-immigration policies were appealing to many citizens. But the power-sharing agreement was blown apart when Ibiza-gate struck to the very heart of government.
On 17 May 2019, a video emerged of Heinz-Christian Strache, vice-president of Austria and leader of the FPÖ, seeming to offer government contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian businessman in exchange for positive media coverage of the party.
He and a fellow politician also suggested corruption was ongoing between other wealthy donors and the party.
The next day, the government collapsed. A snap election was called, and the FPÖ paid a heavy price. Leader of the ÖVP Sebastian Kurz escaped relatively unscathed, increasing his vote share to 37.5 per cent, but the real winners were the Greens, who received 13.9 per cent and entered government for the first time in the country’s history.
A seismic shift in the political landscape, the conservatives now found themselves in coalition with the opposite end of the political spectrum. Yet at first, this unlikely team appeared to steady the ship.
But this was short lived. Crisis struck again just last month, as Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was forced to resign after it emerged he was at the heart of a corruption probe by Austrian police.
He may have survived one corruption storm, but the second became his undoing. Accused of bribery and embezzlement alongside nine other politicians, he gave way to Alexander Schallenberg, who announced the latest lockdown yesterday.
Austria’s government is now hanging on by a thread. Ahead of the 2019 elections, the ÖVP was once seen as the “safe” party. Now, its popularity has sunk dramatically.
Latest polling shows if a snap election were to be called, an option looking increasingly likely, the party would receive just 26 per cent of the vote, down from 40 per cent at the start of the year. If accurate, this would be the second worst result ever for the party.
The polling is clear. Austria’s people feel betrayed by the party which markets itself on being trustworthy and a stable hand. They are now becoming increasingly polarised, looking for answers outside the mainstream parties.
This is shown as the centre-left SPÖ has picked up only two of the percentage points the ÖVP has lost, with the others going to smaller parties on all sides of the political spectrum.
Worryingly for many will be the increase in support for the FPÖ, which has almost doubled its expected vote share from 13 per cent at the beginning of the year to 20 per cent.
So why is the once corruption-embroiled party on the rise once more?
The answer is simple: the party is against coronavirus restrictions. Leader Herbert Kickl has publicly denounced lockdowns and vaccine mandates, releasing a statement in September confirming his vaccination status.
“Whether or not someone gets vaccinated against Corona has to be their free choice. That’s the freedom of access. I am not vaccinated,” he said.
Chancellor Schallenberg has personally blamed the unvaccinated for forcing the country back into lockdown.
“We are demanding a lot from the vaccinated people in this country, because the unvaccinated people have not shown solidarity,” he said.
But this is dangerous language for a politician leading a country. In blaming 35 per cent of his own people, he is risking further alienating those who, for whatever reason, refuse the vaccine.
Meanwhile, the FPÖ has openly endorsed anti-vaxx ideology and alternative, unproven remedies for the virus. They are anti-lockdown and want the country to return to pre-pandemic normality, ideas which are popular with some Austrians for obvious reasons.
Somehow, mainstream Austrian politics must stabilise. The hard truth is Austria is the only nation in Western Europe to have been embroiled in political sleaze of this level.
Corruption breeds mistrust. Mistrust breeds scepticism. And scepticism during a pandemic costs lives.
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