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Win or lose, Austrian far right's views have entered government

Win or lose, Austrian far right's views have entered government
From Reuters - July 16, 2017

VIENNA (Reuters) - Even if Austria's far-right party fails to enter government after Oct. 15 elections, its views on immigration already have.

The anti-Islam Freedom Party's (FPO) popularity reached new heights during Europe's migration crisis in 2015 when it denounced the centrist government's decision to throw open Austria's borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants.

It ran first in opinion polls for more than a year, with support of more than 30 percent, and its candidate came close to winning last year's presidential election.

Now the party has slipped to second or third while the Social Democrats and conservative People's Party (OVP) - the two parties in government, which have dominated post-war politics - have moved towards the far right's positions.

Most of the migrants and refugees carried on to Germany in 2015 but 90,000, or more than 1 percent of Austria's population, stayed and sought asylum. The two centrist parties have since promised to make sure this never happens again.

"Both government parties are something like FPO light," political analyst Anton Pelinka said. "They are not exactly the same as the FPO but the crossover has become very fluid."

A spat with Italy on July 4 about control of their shared border has highlighted the shift.

In the past month Italy has asked other EU countries to help it cope with a surge in the number of migrants reaching its Mediterranean shores from Africa. Concerned about another influx, Austrian Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said he was preparing to take action if they headed towards Austria.

In an interview with Austria's top-selling tabloid, he said he expected border controls at the Brenner Pass, a gateway for Italy to northern Europe, "very soon". The article added that 750 soldiers and four armored vehicles were available to secure the border if needed.

Italy reacted furiously, summoning Austria's ambassador to Rome before Doskozil and Chancellor Christian Kern, both Social Democrats, backed away from the comments.

But the remarks are the latest example of how Austria's two centrist parties are trying to beat the far right at its own game.

"The Social Democrats and the OVP are in a kind of race to see who can take issues away from the Freedom Party," Pelinka said. "They are hurting the Freedom Party with this. Precisely because of this, it has fallen in the polls."

"Parallel Societies"

The OVP and its 30-year-old leader, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, have taken the lead in opinion polls.

Kurz has focused on immigration and integration since taking over as party leader in May, calling for migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to be taken to Africa rather than Europe.

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