Austria’s president has sworn in a new government amid protests against the far right’s prominent role in the cabinet. At the weekend, the new chancellor, Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s party, struck a deal with the Freedom party, a nationalist group founded after the second world war by former members of the Nazi party, now headed by Heinz-Christian Strache. The coalition deal makes Austria the only western European country with a far-right presence in government. At 31, Kurz is the youngest head of government in Europe. Kurz’s People’s party won 32% of the vote in October’s elections, securing 62 seats in the 183-seat national council. The Freedom party came third with 26% of the vote and 51 seats.
About 5,000 people were expected to attend protests in Vienna on Monday – a far lower number than the tens of thousands who turned out the last time the Freedom party entered government, in 2000. A heavy police presence of about 1,500 officers, helicopters and water cannon trucks blocked off the area around Hofburg Palace in the run-up to the swearing-in ceremony by the Austrian president, Alexander Van der Bellen. As marches by leftwing and anti-fascist groups converged at the central Heldenplatz Square, people brandished placards that read “Refugees welcome”, “Nazis out” and “No Nazi pigs”. Police fired a smoke grenade when some protesters tried to break through a barricade, an Agence France-Presse photographer said.
The coalition treaty agreed by the two parties vows to restrict illegal immigration and speed up deportation of refused asylum seekers, but also emphasises the state’s commitment to the European Union. “This is a coalition of two parties who want to actively shape Europe,” Kurz told Austrian TV over the weekend. A referendum on Austria leaving the EU, previously suggested by the Freedom party, has been explicitly ruled out. Kurz’s chancellory will oversee European affairs, and the foreign ministry post has been filled with an independent Middle East expert, Karin Kneissl. The Freedom party will nonetheless control key posts in the new government, including the interior and defence ministry. Norbert Hofer, narrowly beaten by Green-backed Van der Bellen in the Austrian presidential elections in December 2016, will be in charge of infrastructure.