Austrian president: Right shift not anti-Semitic

Austrian President Fischer insists voters only a "protest" vote.

Heinz Fischer 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Heinz Fischer 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Austria's sharp shift to far-right politics in recent years does not mean the country is becoming anti-Semitic, the country's president Heinz Fischer told Israeli journalists over the weekend, ahead of a state visit to Israel this week. The far-right Freedom Party and its spin-off Alliance for the Future of Austria together garnered 28 percent in the country's September elections, leading to concern worldwide that Austria is seeing a resurgence of extremist politics. In a meeting with journalists at his Vienna office, Fischer, a former president of the country's parliament from the center-left Social Democrats, insisted the shift reflected a "protest vote" against the previous unpopular government, suspicion of EU integration - "the two big parties are the champions of European integration" - and concern among working-class Austrians over immigration. He said "poorer people are concerned that it's harder to get a job. In schools and kindergartens quite a few children don't speak the [German] language, or not enough." Furthermore, the far-right parties were neither neo-Nazi nor anti-Semitic, he insisted, challenging journalists "to quote one anti-Semitic statement in parliament in the past three years. They won't find even one." The far-right victory in September meant a disastrous showing for the two centrist parties that have dominated Austrian politics since the fall of Nazism, the center-left Social Democrats and center-right People's Party, which took just 30% and 26%, respectively, the lowest figures since 1945. The problems afflicting Austria's large parties were common in European countries, Fischer said. "The time when the SPD and CDU [parallel center-left and center-right parties] were dominant in Germany is also gone," he said. The Austrian head of state began a three-day state visit to Israel on Sunday focused on trade and scientific cooperation. "My message" to Israelis, he said Thursday, "is that yes, we had this shameful past, this co-responsibility [as part of Germany during World War II], but Austria in the Second Republic is a democratic state totally different from this period. I don't want to whitewash. We have our work to do. But I want a fair picture of Austria [in the media]." Asked by The Jerusalem Post about Austria's policy on Iran's nuclear program as it prepares to join the UN Security Council for 2009-10, Fischer insisted that "Austria is totally loyal to decisions of the United Nations and European Union" on sanctions. "We clearly raise our voice against procedure that allows Iran to develop nuclear weapons. If someone denies Israel's right to exist, like all other democracies we will reject such ideas." A high-placed Austrian source told the Post the country would observe additional sanctions if there were international agreement over them, but was waiting "to see the results of [current] sanctions in the elections in Iran [in June]. In the end, we want to see Iran behave like a normal country."