My Europe: Right-wing extremism, tempered by incompetence


The legendary Austrian politician Victor Adler once said, referring to the absolutist Habsburg monarchy, “Austria is a despotism tempered by sloppiness.” Today it is right-wing extremism that is in power in Austria, tempered by incompetence.

Herbert Kickl, who until last year was the main sloganeer of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and is now Austria’s minister of the interior, is on the extreme right edge of the Viennese right-wing government. During his short time in office Kickl has already made one mess after another. First he talked about how asylum-seekers should be “kept concentrated” and was then surprised that he made headlines from New York to Melbourne.

His subsequent attempt to bring the intelligence agency under party control failed, to the extent that the security service has been in pieces ever since. He had scarcely taken office and was already the subject of a parliamentary investigation.

The creeping Orbanization of Austria

Now from his ministerial cabinet comes a written order to boycott critical media, to supply information only to friendly media, and to use police activities for setting the right-wing agenda. Sure, democratic parties have tried selectively to control reporting, too. But producing a paper like this, several pages long, that can then promptly be leaked to the media is a demonstration of both malicious intent and total incompetence.

But all this is, of course, more than just a blunder. Step by step, Austria is also moving toward Orbanization: authoritarian restructuring combined with the poisoning of the climate. The memo to the police is paradigmatic of this.

Read more: My Europe: Orbanism is sweeping across the continent

Not only does it instruct the state police to reduce the dissemination of information to critical media in future — the liberal Der Standard and liberal-conservative Kurier newspapers and the liberal left-wing Falter magazine are mentioned by name — to the minimum required by law, while less critical media and right-wing cheerleaders are to be rewarded with “zuckerl” (candy); the paper also demands that whenever a sex offense is committed in a public space, the nationality of the perpetrator is explicitly to be mentioned.

Toxic climate and intimidation

Of course, the majority of sex offenses take place in an intimate personal space (and are not, as a rule, made public, let alone labelled with the perpetrator’s nationality), so the aim is clear: to ensure that the word “foreigner” and the word “rape” are indivisibly connected in the minds of the people. Poisoning of the climate, from the top — of the ministry — down.

Herbert Kickl (picture-alliance/H. K. Techt/APA)

Herbert Kickl has been at the heart of a number of controversies since taking office in December 2017

Read more: Far-right populism faces weak pushback from ‘paralyzed’ opposition in Austria

There is also the discernible intention to establish a climate of intimidation. Right now the situation is certainly more embarrassing for those media that are not on Kickl’s list of “critical newspapers.” Who wants an official accreditation from the authoritarian interior minister that classifies your publication as “uncritical?” In the long term, though, all journalists dependent on information from the ministry will think twice about whether they should offend the minister.

And who knows what will be next? Searches of investigative media outlets? Rumors have been circulating in the media world for months that this was seriously discussed in ministerial circles in the course of the intelligence service affair. In any case, editors have already provided their journalists with recommendations about what to do in the event of a police raid.

Europe on a slippery slope

All this is following the script of intimidating any kind of opposition, one that has already been tried and tested in countries such as Hungary or Poland. It’s a course of action that is still considered scandalous, prompting agitated headlines and pugnacious commentaries. However, behavior that used to be regarded as completely impossible in a pluralistic democracy is now one of many options — or, as it were, a possibility that is definitely up for discussion.

Read more: Lech Walesa: Poland’s current leaders ‘are either traitors or complete fools’

Pluralistic democracy and its standards used to be the consensus on the basis of which controversial debates played out. Today, pluralism and democratic standards themselves are merely a possibility — no longer a consensus, but contested. The majority of people are still critical of Minister Kickl, but this will not discomfit his supporters. The FPÖ has been hammering on for years about getting rid of “the elites” — not so much a reference to its financial backers from big business and the arms lobby, but rather to editors who stand in the way of authoritarian restructuring.