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Austria's far-right stokes fears in wealthy countryside

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Austria's far-right stokes fears in wealthy countryside
A campaign poster for Norbert Hofer. Photo: Paul Gillingwater
12:16 CET+01:00
Prosperous, pretty and almost migrant-free -- rural Austria paradoxically offers a happy hunting ground for far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer and his populist Freedom Party.

Ask the people of Pinkafeld what makes them proud of their pastel-coloured town set amid pine-strewn hills and many will reply "Our flowers", followed by "...and our Norbert".

Like elsewhere in the countryside, the 45-year-old swept most of the votes in Pinkafeld in the first runoff in May, which was annulled over procedural irregularities.

Back then, he lost by a paper-thin margin to the Greens-backed Alexander Van der Bellen.

Now many Pinkafelders hope "Norbert", as he's affectionately known, will finally emerge victorious on December 4 -- and not just because he's a local resident.

"Hofer's a nice guy who walks his dog around town but I think people here would support him even if he wasn't from Pinkafeld," local newsagent Hannes Stecker told AFP.

"There's a lurch to the right in Austria and Van der Bellen is too left-leaning. That scares people off. I'm not keen on either but because some of my opinions are more on the right side, I vote for Hofer," the 21-year-old said.

Other locals say they are also frustrated with the ruling centrist coalition, in power since 2008.

"I'm so tired of the main parties always lining their pockets and forgetting about us normal folk," said a butcher in her forties who refused to be named.

This fatigue of the establishment stretches far beyond Austria's borders all the way to the other side of the Atlantic where Donald Trump won the US election in a shock upset.

While Trump appears "too excessive" for rural Austrians, the FPÖ strikes just the right note.

The town hall and Catholic church in Pinkafeld, Burgenland. 

Life is good

Yet, life in Pinkafeld is a far cry from the doomed vision pushed by the party, which has been firing up public anger over refugees and spiralling joblessness.

Thanks to several large manufacturing companies , unemployment is low and the infrastructure excellent.

Of the 130,000 migrants who have arrived in Austria since 2015, only around 100 have been moved to Pinkafeld -- hardly a visible number compared to the 5,500 residents.

Several schools and a university campus mean cafes are thronging with noisy students on any given day of the week.

The town also draws young families from nearby cities because of the affordable housing, good quality of life and easy transport links to Vienna, an hour's drive north.

"The ambience makes this a lovely town to live in," mayor Kurt Maczek told AFP.

In summer, hordes of tourists arrive armed with cameras to capture the town's elaborate floral arrangements, which won a prestigious international prize in 2002.

'Tangible fear'

But all this hasn't stopped a growing sense of unease from bubbling up to Pinkafeld's prim and proper surface.

Last month, unknown perpetrators spray-painted an "SS" symbol and racist slogan on the door of a doctor who is part of a local refugee volunteer group.

The attack prompted a couple of hundred people to organise a flash mob in support of Rainer Oblak outside his surgery.

"I think this was just a stupid action by some idiots. I don't want to excuse or justify it but I think it's a one-off. I don't see this as a sign of people's radicalisation... We're not overburdened with refugees," local FPÖ MP Peter Jauschowetz told AFP.

For the doctor, however, the incident cannot be brushed aside so easily. "There's been a lot of tangible insecurity and even fear because of the populist side stoking jealousy and hatred," Oblak told AFP.

Mayor Maczek also warned that public concerns over refugees were real. Ignoring these concerns is what has cost his party, the Social Democrats, and their ruling coalition partner voters across the country, he said.

"Migrants are definitely the big issue," said Christian Akanatovic, a German who moved to Pinkafeld five years ago. "If I was allowed to vote here, I would vote Hofer. I understand that we need to help people from war-torn countries... But to accept one million refugees (in Europe) without checking their identity is just too extreme," the hotel receptionist, 44, told AFP.

For observers, the FPÖ's rural success is not just down to Hofer -- seen as the far-right's "friendly face" -- but also to what his 72-year-old rival Van der Bellen stands for.

The ex-Green Party leader and university professor "is simply a no-go for the countryside. He doesn't represent their lifestyle or values," analyst Peter Hajek said.

There are nonetheless some dissenting voices in Pinkafeld, including elderly handyman Karl Janitsch. "I will always vote Van der Bellen. If we allow the FPÖ in, it's the end of democracy as we know it."

By Nina Lamparski. 

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