Austrian election: It’s the economy, Dummkopf!

Far-right candidate gets boost ahead of December 4’s presidential election

Image Credit: AFP
A poster of presidential candidate Alexander van den Bellen, independent candidate and the former chief of the Green party, is displayed on a street in Vienna, Austria.
Gulf News

Vienna: Austria is one Europe’s richest countries, yet the hills are alive not with optimism but with worries about the economy, boosting the far-right candidate ahead of December 4’s presidential election.

At the grotty job centre in Vienna’s fifth district, for instance, manager Astrid Mayer is busy.

“Things are getting worse every year,” Mayer said. “The figures speak for themselves. I’ve been here for 15 years and I’ve never seen it like this.”

When Mayer started, the jobless rate was “three point something”, she says. Now it’s 8.6 per cent. Adjusted to compare with the rest of the European Union, it’s 6.3 per cent, no longer the lowest in the bloc.

Doris Blei is one of the lucky ones. The 48-year-old has found a new job after being laid off by her bank.

“Lots of banks are reducing headcount. It’s hard, particularly when you get older,” she said as she queued up.

And even those in work don’t necessarily have it easy. Some 400,000 people are classified as the “working poor” — in employment but unable to get by.

Austria is on the crossroads between Italy, Germany and the EU’s newer eastern members. Bordering eight countries, it lives off tourism, agriculture and, most importantly, selling goods abroad.

Like Germany, the Alpine nation of 8.7 million people boasts a raft of world-beating exporters. Glock guns, Novomatic gaming machines and energy drink Red Bull are all Austrian, as is motorbike maker KTM.

“Austria is one of the biggest winners of the EU, the euro and EU enlargement,” KTM’s chief executive Stefan Pierer said.

Some 98 per cent of KTM’s products — the firm has an alliance with India’s Bajaj Auto — are exported, half to outside the EU.

But cracks in the Austrian model are beginning to show. Working hours are too rigid, non-wage labour costs are too high and the bureaucracy dizzying, Pierer complains.

“It’s awful, demoralising,” he told AFP.

Austria’s competitiveness rankings are far from glowing and investment is mostly just to keep things ticking over, not for the future.

“Out of every 10 euros invested, eight go into renovating existing plants and only two into new projects,” said Franz Schellhorn from think tank Agenda Austria.

Christian Kern, who spent 20 years in industry before becoming Austria’s centre-left chancellor in June, says he is aware that life has got harder.

But his promises to jump-start the unhappy “grand coalition” with the centre-right and launch a “New Deal” package of reforms have so far disappointed, critics say.

Nonetheless Schellhorn stresses that by international standards, Austrians live well. Growth has picked up and unemployment fallen this year. The government has cut some taxes.

“People have in fact never had it so good,” Schellhorn told AFP. “But there is a feeling that things are getting worse.”

Just 23 per cent of Austrians are optimistic about the future, a recent Imas survey showed. Like populists elsewhere, the Freedom Party (FPOe) has tapped into this pessimism.

It portrays itself as being on the side of ordinary Austrian workers against jobs-killing immigration and globalisation.

“Austrian jobs should first be for Austrians, not for EU foreigners and definitely not for the many economic migrants,” the FPOe’s presidential candidate Norbert Hofer says.

The opposition party’s economic policies — slash taxes, splurge on infrastructure — strongly resemble those of US president-elect Donald Trump.

While this might boost growth, like Trump the FPOe is suspicious of trade deals and it is ambivalent about the EU, particularly the free movement of labour.

The message is bearing fruit in the race for the largely ceremonial presidency, with Hofer neck-and-neck in polls with the independent Alexander Van der Bellen.

Van der Bellen, a staunchly pro-EU economics professor, also bemoans the lack of reforms. But Hofer depicts him as being from the same out-of-touch elite as the government.

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