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Austria’s Freedom Party Marches On Amid Lacklustre Protests

Organisers had expected several thousand people, but in the end just 400 showed up at Vienna’s Hofburg palace to protest Austria’s presidential far-right contender Norbert Hofer.

The lacklustre turnout is a further sign that the left has struggled to rally against the seemingly unstoppable rise of populist Freedom Party (FPOe), whose candidate could win Sunday’s run-off vote against Green-backed economics professor Alexander van der Bellen.

Demonstrators who had mustered the energy to join Thursday evening’s rally outside the majestic white palace — seat of the presidential office and the place where Adolf Hitler gave his infamous “Anschluss” speech in 1938 — held up signs reading “No Nazi in the Hofburg”.

“I don’t want to live in a country with a right-wing president, where anti-Semitism and fascism can grow,” said a young protester who identified himself only as Tom.

“I don’t want history to repeat itself,” he told AFP.

Teacher Peter Jungmann deplored what he called the “fear-mongering” over migrants and perceived growing inequality.

His biggest worry, he said, was the negative impact Hofer’s victory would have on “Austria’s image abroad”.

– Populism with a smile –

EU leaders including European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker have voiced concern at the turn of events in Austria.

But for now their criticism echoes through largely empty streets in Vienna, which have seen no anti-Hofer action in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, except for the occasional swastika drawn on electoral billboards or small brawls between rivalling presidential supporters.

Back in 2000, more than 150,000 people had marched in the Austrian capital against the FPOe — then led by the late, SS-admiring Joerg Haider — after it entered a much-maligned coalition with the centre-right People’s Party.

The far-right power grab also prompted international sanctions and turned Austria into an EU pariah.

But times have changed, with support for populist and eurosceptic parties surging across the continent after a crisis-packed year fuelled by the migrant crisis and rising unemployment.

In addition, Hofer has managed to present himself as the FPOe’s “friendly face”, pushing populist themes like anti-immigration with a winning smile instead of the inflammatory rhetoric used by party leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

Saying you’re an FPOe supporter is no longer necessarily considered politically incorrect.

For political expert Peter Hajek, “Hofer is not like the Front National’s ex-leader Jean-Marie Le Pen” whose potential win in 2002 mobilised France and helped Jacques Chirac secure a second presidency in the runoff with a whopping 82 percent.

“Austria is a conservative country and doesn’t have France’s left tradition. Politicians fear there could be a backlash from anti-Hofer campaigns,” Hajek said.

– ‘Hofer is dangerous’ –

Older generations say they are worried about their country’s political development.

“I’ve lived through the war and although I really don’t like van der Bellen, I cannot bring myself to vote for Hofer, he’s dangerous ” said 91-year-old Margarethe Kiesewetter from the small market town of Mattsee near Salzburg, an FPOe stronghold.

“Many of my peers feel the same. This election forces us to not vote for, but against someone.”

Van der Bellen, himself a child of the war, has also warned that Hofer’s presidency would pose a threat to democracy.

“As you know, I am 72 years old and I’ve experienced how Austria rose from the ruins of World War II, caused by the madness of nationalism,” he said at a press conference on Friday morning.

There’s a possibility that Vienna’s protest scene may yet jump to life, with a pro-van der Bellen “rave party and demo” due to be held outside the Hofburg on Saturday afternoon.

Of the 19,000 people invited on Facebook, some 2,600 indicated they would go.

“Even if you don’t agree with van der Bellen or he’s just the lesser evil, your voice counts,” organisers wrote in a statement.

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