Elfriede Jelinek, Austria’s most famous writer, began his call to arms with a reference to the post-Nazi backslide that led in 2000 to the far-right FPÖ leader Joerg Haider joining the government: “Oh, my Austria! Here we are again!”
The appeal launched in September by Jelinek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for literature, has mobilized artists, writers, NGOs and representatives of civil society, who took to the streets in Vienna on Thursday against the black-blue government, starting at 6 p.m. in Ballhausplatz. This was the first in a series of events that will recur every Thursday, as happened also in 2000. There are no external sponsors, and the event is organized by the participants. Widerstand (“Resistance”) and Wir gehen bis ihr geht (“We will march until you leave”), the slogans used in 2000, are once again the watchwords today. The hashtag chosen for the event is simple: “It’s Thursday again,” promising a march every week.
“Once again I find myself in a crypto-fascist country,” Jelinek says. The danger of sliding in that direction is embodied first and foremost by Interior Minister Herbert Kickl from FPÖ, a great friend of Salvini but with less good fortune in the polls—he is the second-least trusted among Austrian politicians, while the FPÖ is currently down to 23 percent, having lost 3 percent of its support. Commentators are increasingly asking how long Chancellor Kurz can afford to keep him around.
One week ago, Kickl’s ministry sent recommendations to the officials of the regional police that said they should give less information to “one-sided and negative” newspapers such as the Standard, Kurier and Falter. Kickl has since had to explain himself in Parliament: the document, he claimed, had been put together without his knowledge at the initiative of his press spokesperson.
Another scandal has broken out due to the revelations by the weekly Falter, which yesterday published new documents regarding the highly irregular police search that Minister Kickl ordered against the most politically sensitive office of his ministry, the Verfassungsschutz (BVT – Constitution Protection Service), i.e. the domestic intelligence service. Since February, this case has been investigated by a parliamentary committee of inquiry as well as by the judiciary. Among others, it is one of the tasks of the BVT to keep the far right under observation, in this case including the Burschenschaften, militant student organizations linked to the FPÖ. No less than 40 percent of the FPÖ deputies in the Austrian parliament are part of these organizations, along with many on the staff of the Interior Minister. Kickl wanted to obtain concrete information from the BVT files on the Burschenschaften: which of them were under investigation, which people were targets for inquiries, and where had undercover investigators managed to infiltrate the world of the far right.
But having gotten very little information from the BVT, Kickl, with the help of a handpicked squad of police officers with close ties to the AUF (the police union linked to the FPÖ), ordered a search of the intelligence service’s offices, seizing all the documents they could find, and suspended the head of the BVT, Peter Gridling, who was later reinstated in his post by the judiciary.
According to Falter’s reporting, Kickl’s intention was crystal clear: to put a stop to any investigation against the extreme right.
Attacks on the freedom of opinion are also ongoing. Christoph Riedl, a jurist working for Diakonie Österreich, had a complaint filed against him for defamation by the Federal Asylum Office, which is part of the Interior Ministry. In an interview with the newspaper Kurier, he had criticized the arbitrariness and incompetence of the Interior Ministry officials regarding asylum procedures: “It would be fairer if they just drew names out of a hat.” The defamation complaint was dismissed as groundless on Wednesday by the prosecutor’s office. However, similar legal complaints await even those who exhibit anti-Kickl banners at a stadium during a sports event: three days ago, at the UCI Road World Championships cycling competition in Innsbruck, two complaints were filed because of a banner with an anti-Kickl message.
Others are taking the FPÖ’s actions as a model to follow: on Wednesday, German AfD deputy Petr Bystron, during a campaign rally in Rosenheim in Bavaria, threatened leftist protestors by promising to “clean house just like our brothers in the FPÖ are doing. Since they got into government, the first step was to raid the domestic intelligence office. And the second step will be to get rid of all you left-wing extremists.”