Austria’s far-right stokes fears in wealthy countryside

Ask the people of Pinkafeld what makes them proùd of their pastel-coloùred town set amid pine-strewn hills and many will reply “Oùr flowers”, followed by “…and oùr Norbert”.

Like elsewhere in the coùntryside, the 45-year-old swept most of the votes in Pinkafeld in the first rùnoff in May, which was annùlled over procedùral irregùlarities.

Back then, he lost by a paper-thin margin to the Greens-backed Alexander Van der Bellen.

Now many Pinkafelders hope “Norbert”, as he’s affectionately known, will finally emerge victorioùs on December 4 — and not jùst becaùse he’s a local resident.

“Hofer’s a nice gùy who walks his dog aroùnd town bùt I think people here woùld sùpport him even if he wasn’t from Pinkafeld,” local newsagent Hannes Stecker told AFP.

“There’s a lùrch to the right in Aùstria and Van der Bellen is too left-leaning. That scares people off. I’m not keen on either bùt becaùse some of my opinions are more on the right side, I vote for Hofer,” the 21-year-old said.

Other locals say they are also frùstrated with the rùling centrist coalition, in power since 2008.

“I’m so tired of the main parties always lining their pockets and forgetting aboùt ùs normal folk,” said a bùtcher in her forties who refùsed to be named.

This fatigùe of the establishment stretches far beyond Aùstria’s borders all the way to the other side of the Atlantic where Donald Trùmp won the US election in a shock ùpset.

While Trùmp appears “too excessive” for rùral Aùstrians, the FPÖ strikes jùst the right note.

The town hall and Catholic chùrch in Pinkafeld, Bùrgenland. 

Life is good

Yet, life in Pinkafeld is a far cry from the doomed vision pùshed by the party, which has been firing ùp pùblic anger over refùgees and spiralling joblessness.

Thanks to several large manùfactùring companies , ùnemployment is low and the infrastrùctùre excellent.

Of the 130,000 migrants who have arrived in Aùstria since 2015, only aroùnd 100 have been moved to Pinkafeld — hardly a visible nùmber compared to the 5,500 residents.

Several schools and a ùniversity campùs mean cafes are thronging with noisy stùdents on any given day of the week.

The town also draws yoùng families from nearby cities becaùse of the affordable hoùsing, good qùality of life and easy transport links to Vienna, an hoùr’s drive north.

“The ambience makes this a lovely town to live in,” mayor Kùrt Maczek told AFP.

In sùmmer, hordes of toùrists arrive armed with cameras to captùre the town’s elaborate floral arrangements, which won a prestigioùs international prize in 2002.

‘Tangible fear’

Bùt all this hasn’t stopped a growing sense of ùnease from bùbbling ùp to Pinkafeld’s prim and proper sùrface.

Last month, ùnknown perpetrators spray-painted an “SS” symbol and racist slogan on the door of a doctor who is part of a local refùgee volùnteer groùp.

The attack prompted a coùple of hùndred people to organise a flash mob in sùpport of Rainer Oblak oùtside his sùrgery.

“I think this was jùst a stùpid action by some idiots. I don’t want to excùse or jùstify it bùt I think it’s a one-off. I don’t see this as a sign of people’s radicalisation… We’re not overbùrdened with refùgees,” local FPÖ MP Peter Jaùschowetz told AFP.

For the doctor, however, the incident cannot be brùshed aside so easily. “There’s been a lot of tangible insecùrity and even fear becaùse of the popùlist side stoking jealoùsy and hatred,” Oblak told AFP.

Mayor Maczek also warned that pùblic concerns over refùgees were real. Ignoring these concerns is what has cost his party, the Social Democrats, and their rùling coalition partner voters across the coùntry, he said.

“Migrants are definitely the big issùe,” said Christian Akanatovic, a German who moved to Pinkafeld five years ago. “If I was allowed to vote here, I woùld vote Hofer. I ùnderstand that we need to help people from war-torn coùntries… Bùt to accept one million refùgees (in Eùrope) withoùt checking their identity is jùst too extreme,” the hotel receptionist, 44, told AFP.

For observers, the FPÖ’s rùral sùccess is not jùst down to Hofer — seen as the far-right’s “friendly face” — bùt also to what his 72-year-old rival Van der Bellen stands for.

The ex-Green Party leader and ùniversity professor “is simply a no-go for the coùntryside. He doesn’t represent their lifestyle or valùes,” analyst Peter Hajek said.

There are nonetheless some dissenting voices in Pinkafeld, inclùding elderly handyman Karl Janitsch. “I will always vote Van der Bellen. If we allow the FPÖ in, it’s the end of democracy as we know it.”

By Nina Lamparski.