By Kirsti Knolle and Shadia Nasralla
VIENNA (Reuters) – When the far right took the lead in Austria’s presidential election earlier this year, Viennese businessman Georg Demmer says he was so shocked that he got involved in national politics for the first time.
Patiently and methodically he and a group of like-minded people worked their way from bar to bar, persuading and cajoling voters to cast their ballot to keep the far right Freedom Party candidate from office.
But 180 km to the west, in the city of Linz, shoe saleswoman Patricia Haginger took a very different view. To her, the prospect of putting an Austria-first eurosceptic in the presidential palace was a chance to upend mainstream politics.
Demmer and Haginger, both 33, stand on either side of a near perfect political divide in Austria, where the collapse of the political center has set up a clash between an often disgruntled and fearful working class and a more comfortable urban elite.
With many Western voters moving away from traditional parties and politicians, lifting forces as varied as the National Front in France and Donald Trump in the United States, Austria’s split could be mirrored elsewhere.
In the end, the presidency narrowly eluded far right candidate Norbert Hofer in a run-off vote last month, thanks in part to Demmer and others like him who mobilized voters in support of Hofer’s second round opponent, former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen.
The Freedom Party traces its roots to the decade after World War Two. Its first leader was Anton Reinthaller, a decorated member of the Nazi SS who served as agriculture minister after Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938. On Reinthaller’s death in 1958, he was replaced by another former SS officer, Friedrich Peter.
The party’s more recent history was dominated by Joerg Haider, who became leader in 1986. It is from Haider’s nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-EU platform that much of the party’s current line is derived. Haider died in a car crash in 2008 but still casts a shadow over Austrian politics.
Demmer in Vienna and Haginger in Linz are equally sure of their ground.
Demmer runs a working space for startups and freelancers. He says it is unimaginable that “a backward-thinking person with ethnically-based and nationalist views could take such high office.” This notion is rejected by Hofer, who says he expresses the concerns of ordinary people.
Demmer recounts how, shocked by Hofer’s strong first round showing, he and others who share his views targeted bars in areas where neither run-off candidate had a clear lead. They found people were generally prepared to listen.
“There was no negative atmosphere, no aggression,” he said. “There were many arguments that had little to do with facts, more with sympathies and a general feeling of protest against the government.”
In the run-off on May 22, Van der Bellen’s margin of victory was only about 31,000 votes, or less than 1 percentage point – a result that Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said on Saturday he is likely to challenge.
The election for the largely ceremonial post revealed splits between young and old, city and countryside, and blue- and white-collar workers.
Election-day polling by the SORA institute showed 86 percent of blue-collar voters backed Hofer. Among those with a university degree, 81 percent voted for Van der Bellen.
Cities were also hubs of support for Van der Bellen. In Vienna for instance he had a margin of 26.6 percentage points. The former Green leader had the backing of 60 percent of women voters.
For many of Hofer’s supporters, immigration and integration were important issues.
“Being multicultural is all well and good, but we need to make sure that there is a togetherness,” said Haginger, the shoe saleswoman who lives in Auwiesen, a largely working-class area of Linz.
In Haginger’s view, immigrants should accept the cultural and religious values of predominantly Catholic Austria.
The Freedom Party’s message that mass immigration threatens security and jobs in a country that took in 90,000 asylum seekers last year – more than 1 percent of its population – resonates in neighborhoods like hers.
While she says she gets along well with neighbors who settled in Austria years ago and learnt to speak German, security is a big concern. Hofer’s direct language is appealing.
“He believes in what he says. He says very clearly Austria first, homeland first,” she said. For her, the party’s roots in Austria’s Nazi past are irrelevant.
“We are not a Nazi party. I would never describe myself as a Nazi,” she said. “We are people who want security and want to see Austrians put first.”
That outlook is anathema to Demmer. To him, Austria’s Nazi, or “brown”, history is relevant. Austrians have a Nazi past and a “brown core”, he says, “and it is therefore slightly different than in other countries.”
Voters on both sides are frustrated with Austria’s traditional parties of government – the Social Democrats (SPO) and the conservative People’s Party (OVP) – which have dominated post-war politics and whose coalition term runs until 2018.
Their dominance has been such that they have carved up major institutions between them and supplied every president since World War Two. But this election marked a sea change, with both parties’ candidates having failed to make the run-off.
“The OVP and SPO were increasingly busy fighting each other,” Haginger said, explaining why she switched from supporting the center-left SPO to the Freedom Party years ago. “The FPO has become the real workers’ party.”
She feels the party better understands what life in her neighborhood of post-war apartment blocks is like, unlike Van der Bellen whom she calls “a daydreamer”.
In Vienna’s 10th district, where 38.4 percent of the population was born outside Austria, kebab shop worker Pasa Coeset reflects on events – and voices sympathy for Hofer.
Coeset recounts that he came to Austria from Turkey in 1988. A naturalized Austrian, he has served in the Austrian army and his children have Austrian passports. But now he hankers to return to Turkey.
“Working here doesn’t pay anymore, bills are getting more expensive, fees and taxes, electricity is getting more expensive. Hofer is right. Hofer is not against foreigners. He only does not want you to get money from the state if you have been unemployed for a long time.”
“I am Muslim, but Hofer is not Islamophobic.”
(Writing by Michael Shields and Francois Murphy; editing by Janet McBride)