Burqa ban in Austria signals coming political earthquake
A Austrian law banning the full face covering of women, known as the "Burqa Ban," will go into effect today and strong support for the law may signal a rightward shift in a nation governed from the center since the end of World War II.
National elections are looming on October 15 and support for the burga ban by the two nationalist parties could propel them to power in a coalition government.
The Austrian law — called “Prohibition for the Covering of the Face” — forbids off-slope ski masks, surgical masks outside hospitals and party masks in public. Violations carry a possible fine of 150 euros (nearly $180) and police are authorized to use force with people who resist showing their faces.
But its popular name reflects the most prevalent association — the garments some Muslim women wear to conceal their whole faces and bodies. The garments are rare in Austria even after the recent surge of migrants into Europe. Support for the law is strong nonetheless, reflecting anti-Muslim attitudes in the predominantly Catholic country.
“It’s not right that those living here don’t show their faces,” said Emma Schwaiger, who expressed support for the ban in a straw poll on the streets of Vienna.
Five in seven of those who said they backed the law also said they will vote for the two parties that critics link to anti-Muslim sentiment — the traditionally xenophobic Freedom Party and the People’s Party. The People’s Party avoids the Freedom Party’s inflammatory talk, but has swung radically from the center under new leader Sebastian Kurz to echo that party’s positions on migration.
The Social Democratic Party, currently the majority partner in the government coalition with the People’s Party, has been left struggling.
Under Chancellor Christian Kern, the Social Democrats are focusing on social topics and claiming credit for Austria’s recent economic upturn. But Kern’s message is not coming across well.
A Unique Research poll of 1,500 respondents published Thursday showed the Social Democrats with 27 percent support, ahead of the Freedom Party at 25 percent but trailing the People’s Party with 34 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Previously associated with stagnation and lack of direction, the People’s Party was trailing in third place until Kurz, Austria’s telegenic 31-year old foreign minister, took leadership in May after securing party pledges of full authority.
He already was known Europe-wide for shutting down the West Balkans route into the prosperous EU heartland for migrants. With early elections set after the breakup of the coalition with the Social Democrats, he rapidly remade the party in his own image.
Austria allowed more than 100,000 refugees into the country, which is proving to be very unpopular. In fact, the refugee issue is turning politics on the entire continent upside down. It's no accident that those political parties that embraced the new arrivals are losing support while those who opposed their entry are soaring.
In this case, unlike in Germany where the nationalists gained ground but won't have a seat at the table, the Austrian right is set to make unprecedented gains that will probably lead to a takeover.
But before the right in the US gets too excited, it should be noted that the Austrian right is just as dedicated to the socialist model of governing as the left wing, with a few exceptions. This holds true across Europe as voters have become addicted to government benefits. Look what's happening in France as President Macron is trying to implement extremely modest labor reforms. Macron's party, En Marche, has seen their approval numbers tank at least partly a result of the passage of labor reforms.
Eventually, the left wing parties in Austria and Europe will adapt to the new political situation, as Germany's Merkel has already done, and slow or halt the flow of refugees. But with nearly 2 million new arrivals across Europe, it's a fair question to ask how much longer Europe will remain "Europe."