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Austria's far-right shows strength

Demonstrations, riots follow a string of electoral successes.

Youths make an illegal Nazi salute at a Freedom Party demonstration in Graz, Austria, May 2009. (Courtesy of Michael Sladek)

GRAZ, Austria — Flushed with recent electoral success, the Austrian far-right's bid for seats in the European Parliament has come with a level of xenophobic, pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim antics not seen for years — and in many cases against the law.

This is where "where the path of open doors takes you" said Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party (FP), the largest far-right party in Austria, surveying the hall in which rival Sikh sects clashed May 24. The incident left Sant Rama Anand, a 57-year-old preacher, shot dead, 16 others injured and triggered rioting in India. According to Ewald Stadler, the main candidate for the FP's smaller breakaway rival, Alliance for the Future (AF), it was time for a travel ban on "problem gurus."

The week before, the FP's Martin Graf, deputy president of parliament, had said Jewish community leader Ariel Muzicant was the "instigator of anti-fascist left-wing terrorism." His comments even went too far for the AF, which is now keen to be seen as the more sober face of the far-right. The governing coalition has called for Graf's resignation.

In Graz, Austria, a FP rally addressed by Strache earlier this month attracted supporters wearing the T-shirt of its youth wing together with others sporting forbidden Nazi insignia and making the outlawed Nazi salute. Strache, himself once allegedly photographed making a similar gesture, later dismissed it as the hijinks of youths not affiliated with the party. Looking on was FP politician Susanne Winter and her son Michael Winter, the former leader of the FP youth wing, both recently convicted of incitement through anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The uptick in hate speech began after the FP and AF ride exceeded expectations in national elections in September, when they won almost a third of the vote. Two weeks later, the far-right benefited from the "Diana effect" after the death of Joerg Haider, who led the FP before founding AF. He was found dead behind the wheel of his car after crashing in the heartland of his support, Carinthia, at twice the speed limit and three times the allowed level of alcohol.