When Christian Ragger heard that the Swiss had voted to cap immigration into their country in a referendum last weekend, he was “deeply impressed”, he says. “All over the world, immigration is protected [from being limited]. It required a special courage to vote in that way. This was a typically democratic Swiss action.”
Ragger heads the local branch of the Austrian Freedom party (FPÖ) in its mountainous stronghold of Carinthia, in the south of the country. Once led by the flamboyant Jörg Haider, the FPÖ has been called everything from populist to neo-Nazi, yet it would be hard to imagine anyone less like the stereotype of a bull-necked, red-faced Alpine far right-winger than the FPÖ’s trim and cosmopolitan young leader.
Ragger speaks good English and excellent Italian and, before joining the regional government, was a partner in a law firm that has branches in Milan and Florence.
When Haider’s party joined the Austrian government after winning 27% of the vote in the 1999 general election, other European Union countries were so horrified that they took the unprecedented decision to reduce to a minimum their contacts with Austrian officials. Since then, Haider has died and the FPÖ has split. Now it is back – and with a vengeance. It came second in each of the last five opinion polls in Austria – and those were all carried out before last weekend’s vote.
“The result in Switzerland has played right into the hands of the FPÖ,” says Claudia Grabner, editor of Carinthia’s regional daily, Kärntner Tageszeitung. “And that is not just because of immigration. For years now, the FPÖ has been holding up Switzerland as an example. Its leaders have been saying, ‘Look at the Swiss: they’re not in the EU, they’re not in the euro, and they’re doing better’.”
She believes the FPÖ could now get 25% of the vote in the European Union election in May. Ragger says that in Carinthia they are already polling 30%.
A strong showing by the FPÖ would increase the likelihood that the biggest single group in the next European parliament will be made up of Eurosceptics. Not that Ragger would like you to put that label on either him or the FPÖ. His party denies that it wants to pull Austria out of the EU. “But ever since we joined, we’ve been calling for reforms,” he says.
Like Britain’s Eurosceptics, the FPÖ is unhappy about the country’s loss of sovereignty to an unelected European commission. As for the euro, says Ragger, its strength has been a disaster for Austria in general and his own region in particular. Carinthia, bordering Italy and Slovenia in the eastern Alps, is overwhelmingly dependent on exports.
“For the first time in Carinthia we have unemployment running at over 12%,” says Ragger. “It used to be around 6%. We are seeing a lot of bankruptcies and we have lost a lot of jobs. And yet we are still taking in immigrants – from Bulgaria and Romania, but also from Afghanistan and Syria. They now make up 10% of the population.”
He reckons that, if Austrians had been given the same chance as the Swiss, they too would have voted for a curb on immigration. “In the country as a whole it would have been a majority. But in Carinthia it would have been 60%,” he says.
On the flat, snow-covered fields a seven-minute drive from the FPÖ’s head office in the regional capital of Klagenfurt stands a football stadium, a monument to former leader Haider’s vainglorious folly.
As governor of Carinthia, he dreamed of converting his skiing-mad fellow citizens to the “beautiful game”. Haider cajoled the central government into making Klagenfurt a venue for the Euro 2008 football tournament, and tapped a local bank for the funds to build a suitable stadium.
Because of that and other disastrous ventures, the bank had to be bailed out by the taxpayer. Although the 30,000-capacity stadium is occasionally used for international matches and other big fixtures, a spokesman for the management confirmed that the home team, SK Austria Klagenfurt, draws a crowd of “around 500”.
Werner Bauer, a Viennese political scientist, describes the FPÖ’s comeback from the scandals that erupted after Haider’s death in a car crash as “astonishing”.
The secret of its success, he says, has been to tap into the anger of the “losers from globalisation” under its leader since 2005, Heinz-Christian Strache. “Austrians are very anxious and very conservative. And now a majority are against the EU,” says Bauer.
He claims that the party’s officials are generally “extremely rightwing” and that a lot once belonged to burschenschaften – student fraternities, many linked to the far right. “But,” he adds, “you cannot say that the FPÖ’s supporters are all very rightwing.”
Ragger denies that the party machinery is staffed by far rightwingers. “Up until about two years ago, that was probably true,” he acknowledges. “But we are hoping to get into government at the next election, and for that reason we are reorganising our party officials.”
The FPÖ’s chief in Carinthia readily agrees that it has broadened its electoral base. “The main voters for our party now are the workers. In the national election last year, for the first time, we received more working-class votes than the Socialists. We too are New Labour,” he says with a grin.
The FPÖ’s social and employment policies, though, sound anything but Blairite: an end to short-term contracts; pensions for all after 35 years in employment; and guaranteed places in retirement homes.