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Austria’s deputy leader pushes extremist argument to warn against immigration

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Freedom Party, speaks at an election rally in Vienna on April 26. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)

Ahead of European Parliament elections, Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache has described his staunchly anti-immigration Freedom Party as committed to fighting “population exchange,” a term associated with and used by the extreme right.

Strache is vice chancellor in Sebastian Kurz’s conservative government. Last week, Christian Schilcher, a member of the Freedom Party and deputy mayor of Braunau am Inn, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, wrote a poem in which he called migrants “rats.” Kurz called the word choice “abhorrent, inhuman and deeply racist,” and Strache said Schilcher will leave the party and resign from his position.

The sequence of events may have seemed like a win of sorts for Kurz, for whom keeping the Freedom Party on his side, in government and in check is seen as the greatest challenge of his chancellorship.

But then came Strache’s interview with the Krone, Austria’s largest newspaper. In it, he said controversies such as the furor over the “Town Rat” poem could help his party, which was founded in the 1950s and was first led by Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi.

"We are consistently following the path for our Austrian homeland, the fight against population exchange, as people expect of us,” Strache said in the interview, according to the paper.

When the interviewer noted that “population exchange” is a term used by far-right extremists, Strache reportedly said, “This is a term of reality. We do not want to become a minority in our own homeland. This is legitimate and honest and deeply democratic.” The vice chancellor added that not being ideologically left-wing does not automatically make one extreme-right and that only the use of force to bring about political goals can be considered far-right extremism.

“Population exchange” has the same ideological roots as the theory of “Great Replacement,” articulated in 2012 by the French philosopher Renaud Camus. Camus argued that migrants, particularly Muslims, threaten to overwhelm European civilization. His work inspired, among others, the New Zealand mosque shooter.

The idea that one population threatens to replace another — specifically, that white Europeans will be replaced by nonwhite immigrants — is used by right-wing leaders throughout the continent. For example, Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far right, said in 2017, “Our population is being replaced. No more.” The language isn’t confined to Europe; in the Charlottesville that year, white supremacists marched with tiki torches chanting “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”

Elsewhere in the same Krone interview, Strache urged voters to support the Freedom Party in European Union parliamentary elections next month, saying a vote for his party is a check against Brussels and the “irresponsible welcoming culture” of people like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

In 2015, Austria took in about 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers, which, as Reuters noted, was an experience that shaped voters’ minds and helped bring both Kurz and Strache to power in 2017.

Strache is hardly the first European politician to frame the coming European Parliament elections around migration. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban launched his Fidesz party’s campaign for the elections with a seven-point anti-immigration plan, telling members of his party, “At stake is whether the E.U. will have pro-immigration or anti-immigration leaders.”