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Far-right support climbs as refugees reach Austria

media Migrants in the Austrian-Hungarian border, 14 September 2015. An estimated 200,000 asylum seekers have entered Austria since the start of September. Reuters

Austrian police said Monday a total of 12,220 asylum seekers have entered the country from the Balkans over the previous three days, as people continue to flee conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The announcement followed a state election in Vienna on Sunday that saw gains for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which made fears surrounding migration central to its campaign.

The FPÖ won 32.3 percent of Sunday’s vote, its highest-ever result in Vienna state elections and a 6.5-point increase over its result in the last election in 2010.

However, it was not enough to unseat the ruling Social Democrats – despite a fall in support of 4.9 points, the incumbent party received 39.4 percent of the vote and will continue to govern in a coalition with the country’s Green Party.

An estimated 200,000 asylum seekers have entered Austria since the beginning of September, and although the majority of whom want to pass through the country to reach Germany or Scandinavia, migration was a key campaign issue.

“The question of refugees has been on the headlines of the newspapers, and many people were confronted with refugees in train stations and public spaces over the recent months,” says Florian Bieber, professor at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz.

Social Democrat Mayor Michael Haeupl said those seeking refuge should be welcomed in Vienna, while FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache said Austria should follow Hungary’s lead and build a border fence to keep out migrants.

But even if the FPÖ benefitted from an “atmosphere of fear” in its campaign, capitalising on “anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric” and using “a discourse portraying asylum seekers as a threat to money, resources and jobs”, Bieber believes the result shows the party has little hope of gaining power.

“It’s going to be hard to imagine another point in time when the Freedom Party will have such a receptive environment to gain votes,” Bieber explains. “On one hand, there seems to be strong support for the Freedom Party in Austria, including Vienna, but it remains limited and many people who voted for other parties cannot imagine voting for the Freedom Party.”

Arrivals of new asylum seekers showed little sign of abating on Monday, as Austrian police announced the total number of people entering from Hungary via the Balkans has increased in recent days, even though it does equal the numbers reached in September.

“This is not a record,” police spokesperson Gerald Koller told AFP agency. “There were days last month when we had daily totals of 12,000 or 14,000.”

European Union member states have been divided over how to respond, with some calling to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc and others reinstating identity checks and border controls.

The uncertainty and lack of coordinated response provoked a rise in support for parties in favour of closing national borders.

“Far-right populist parties, characterised by a nationalistic, anti-European, anti-immigration sentiment, are generally trending throughout Europe, and the recent election in Austria has confirmed this trend,” says Alexander Trechsel, head of the Political Science department at the European University Institute in Florence.

“As long as we have this uncertainty that is reigning on how to best address this problem, then the fear in the population that is in many parts of Europe very much concerned with an economic situation that is not so rosy, in such a climate these populist parties and movements will be able to continue gaining votes.”

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