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Austria: Far Right Takes Power

Austria: Far Right Takes Power

Tuesday, 19 December, 2017 - 10:15
New Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) of the People's Party (OeVP) and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen smile after Kurz was sworn in at the presidential office in Vienna, Austria, December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

The new Austrian government was sworn in yesterday while thousands gathered on the streets of Vienna protesting the far-right government, which didn't brother Austria's partners especially after it pledged to maintain a pro-European approach.

Sebastian Kurz, 31, became the country's new chancellor to become the world's youngest leader, months after leading Austrian People's Party (OVP) to victory in October's legislative elections.

President Alexander van der Bellen, a liberal environmentalist, formed the 13-member cabinet, six of whom belonged to the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, to take over key ministries.

Van der Bellen asked the Kurz coalition to respect Austrian history, both its positive and negative pages, and "the rights of minorities, who think differently."

The president added that he was aware that some were "skeptical and even against" the new majority, as thousands of people demonstrated near the presidential palace to protest the participation of Freedom Party in the government.

The right-wing party, third in the elections, won three sovereign ministries: the Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs, and Heinz Christian Strache, 48, was appointed as deputy chancellor.

Strache had previously described immigration as "mass invasion" and said Islam is not welcomed in Austria.

Strache's party has been involved in politics for several decades and is considered as one of the oldest far-right European parties.

The formation of this coalition led to a wave of protests and prompted Austria's partners to impose sanctions on the country.

Following the inauguration of the government, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Raed al-Hussein considered the extreme right's accession "a dangerous development ... in the political life of Europe," warning of "manipulating the feelings of fear."

“I am very worried,” Hussein told AFP.

European Council President Donald Tusk sent Kurz a congratulatory letter that underlined EU concerns about the new coalition, to which Kurz tweeted back that his new government would be “clear pro-European and committed to making a positive contribution to the future development of the EU”.

“I trust that the Austrian government will continue to play a constructive and pro-European role in the European Union,” Tusk wrote.

Germany and France also indicated vigilance about Austria in their comments which highlighted Kurz’s pledges to foster European cooperation.

France congratulated the new chancellor and stated that he affirmed his attachment to European values and the European project, which his government’s program adopted.

France’s foreign ministry spokesperson said on Monday it wanted to engage in a dialogue based on European values and projects with Austria.

"It is in this spirit that we want to engage in a dialogue with his government," said the spokesperson.

Strache's Party was able to solidify its presence on the roadmap of the new government and tightened restrictions on the immigration policy, especially through curtailing social assistance to foreigners.

Sebastian Kurz adopted this right-wing policy in the wake of the wave of immigration during 2015 and 2016.

On Sunday, Strache said on Facebook that the new government would slash social benefits for asylum-seekers.

"It will no longer happen that migrants who have never worked here a single day or paid anything into the social system will get thousands of euros in welfare!" Strache posted.

Although the new majority emphasizes a "clear European commitment," it also set a goal of "delegating authority" to national authorities within EU and limiting the transfer of sovereignty to European bodies, which opposes French President Emmanuel Macron's vision who calls for a federal EU.

Despite its stance against Europe, the Freedom Party was forced to withdraw its request to leave the European Union. To reassure his European partners, Kurz will keep the foreign minister as Austria prepares to assume EU chair during the second half of 2018.

Kurz will head to Brussels on Tuesday to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, during his first visit outside Austria since he took power.

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