With resurgent extreme-right politics getting a grip on the nation, unemployment creeping steadily up and the country on tenterhooks after an annulled presidential election, Austria is living turbulent times. But it isn’t all bleak: there has been a boom in tourism and Vienna is topping quality of life surveys once again. Not to mention the forward-thinking chancellor and foreign minister – all little rays of hope that suggest the country can weather the storm.
Tables Turn on Immigration
As elsewhere in Europe, the hot talking point of the moment is the migrant crisis and its social and economic ramifications. Historically, Austria has a good track record of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers, for instance during the Balkans War in 1995 when thousands fled here from war-torn Yugoslavia. When the crisis reached its borders in 2015, Austria initially expressed its solidarity by assisting refugees who entered the country via Hungary with their onward journey. At Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof, a Train of Hope was set up, with volunteers helping refugees. In tune with neighbouring Germany’s open-door policies, Austria accepted 90,000 asylum applications in 2015 – one of Europe’s highest per capita. Then in August 2015, public opinion changed following the grim discovery of a truck containing the badly decomposing bodies of 71 migrants in the east of the country.
By 2016, the tables were turning. No longer able to cope with the influx of migrants and struggling to successfully integrate and find jobs for them amid rising unemployment, the country capped the maximum number of migrants at 37,500. Following the first round of presidential elections in April 2016, it introduced a highly controversial bill to allow 'a state of emergency', permitting the rejection of the vast majority of refugees at borders should numbers suddenly surge. A 4km fence was erected on the Slovenian border, and talks are in the pipeline about building further fences on the Hungarian and Italian (Brenner Pass) borders. The UN and asylum experts have condemned such actions as flouting human rights laws.
Presidential Elections: A Nation Divided
Another big talking point is the presidential elections (the role of Austria's president, however, is largely ceremonial). For the first time since WWII, neither of the country’s two main centrist parties made it to the second presidential run-off in May 2016. Instead, the vote swung between two unlikely neck-and-neck candidates: Alexander van der Bellen, an independent backed by the Greens, and Norbert Hofer, a member of the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ). Van der Bellen won by a hair’s breadth, but ripples of shock shook the nation when the result was overturned by constitutional court due to ballot irregularities, and a re-vote was scheduled.
Right vs Left
The 2016 presidential elections clearly indicated that populism in Austria is on rise. The reasons for this are complex, but issues such as the handling of the migrant crisis, disillusionment with the mainstream political parties and fears for the future (unemployment currently stands at 8.6%) are all key topics.
In this climate of uncertainty, Hofer’s popularity has gone from strength to strength. Though critics see him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the 45-year-old family man's message about ‘putting Austria first’ has struck a chord with many.
On the other side of the fence is progressive Green candidate Alexander van der Bellen, a 72-year-old retired economics professor, who dreams of a border-free ‘United States of Europe’.
Austria may have some clouds looming overhead, but some political silver linings are giving the country hope. The former CEO of Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), Christian Kern of the SPÖ, became chancellor in May 2016 (in Austria, the federal chancellor is the true head of government). He oversaw the mass influx of refugees by rail and after election called for an EU shakeup in the wake of Brexit.
The nation’s focus is also on 30-year-old Sebastian Kurz, a member of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the world’s youngest foreign minister. Seeing the recent presidential elections as a catalyst for change, he has called for a better control of EU borders. With his bold thinking and frank speaking, he believes in helping immigrants by giving them what they need to integrate successfully.
Rising unemployment and political tussles aside, Vienna has every reason to celebrate. Its recently completed Hauptbahnhof has given the capital a new sheen, while Eurovison 2015 put it in the continent's spotlight. And the tourism boom that has swept across the country has been particularly spectacular here, thanks in part to a raft of new flights.
In terms of living standards, Vienna remains at the top of the class: in 2016 global consulting firm Mercer ranked it as the world's most liveable city for the seventh year in a row.