Protests greet Austria's new 'cabinet of horrors'

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Vienna (AFP)

Inside the Hofburg palace, it was all smiles for the far-right ministers sworn into Austria's new government on Monday, but out in the cold it was whistles, worries and waving placards as some 5,500 people demonstrated.

"With the interior and the defence ministries, the far-right is going to control the main levers of power," protester Claudia, 45, told AFP as police helicopters hummed overhead and water-cannon trucks stood at the ready.

The wealthy but disgruntled Alpine country's new government is a coalition between the conservative People's Party (OeVP) and the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe), two months after elections that saw voters move to the right.

Heading the government is Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, 31, of the OeVP, who won the elections by talking tough on immigration and promising to make Austria great again, with FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache his deputy.

Strache, 48, last year called German Chancellor Angela Merkel "the most dangerous woman in Europe" for her open-door refugee policy and has warned of the "Islamisation" of Europe and of "civil war in the medium term" because of immigration.

The party secured the interior ministry, to be headed by Herbert Kickl, who used to write speeches for Strache's controversial predecessor Joerg Haider, as well as defence and foreign affairs.

As a 15-strong choir sang Christmas carols turned into political anthems, placards at the demonstration, with an angry crowd but almost without incident, included "Cabinet of Horrors" and "Don't let Nazis govern".

The last time the FPOe entered government, in 2000 under Haider, there was outrage across Europe that a man who could praise Adolf Hitler's "orderly" employment policies could be part of an EU government.

But this time, with Europe more inured to far-right parties and the FPOe appearing to have mellowed, the reaction has been muted. Demonstrations 15 years ago were also much, much larger, involving up to 250,000 people at one point.

This is perhaps because while many Austrians may be uneasy about the FPOe, large numbers were fed up with the previous "grand coalition" of the conservatives and the Social Democrats after a decade of squabbling and inaction, and wanted a change.

- 'For the rich' -

But protester Stefanie, 36, said she was still "very worried", remembering the experience of the FPOe's last period in office and the many dodgy dealings that emerged later, with Haider himself seemingly among the most implicated.

One case reached trial only last week, with a former FPOe finance minister charged over 9.6 million euros ($11.3 million) in alleged backhanders during the privatisation of state-owned properties.

But protester Stefanie, 36, said she was still "very worried", remembering the experience of the FPOe's last period in office and the many dodgy dealings that emerged later, with Haider himself seemingly among the most implicated.

"We saw what happened 15 years ago. The rich are favoured at the expense of the weak, the poor, refugees," Stefanie told AFP. "And a few years later all the corruption scandals come out."

For Claudia, the fact that many in the FPOe are members of right-wing student fraternities born in the 19th century and infamous for their duelling and pan-Germanic tendencies, "takes us back 100 years".

"I think that there is going to be even more hate-mongering towards immigrants. Already we know that the new government is going to cut their access to benefits," said Katharina, 38. "I am married to a Nigerian. This is not a country I want to live in".

The demonstrations were given extra impetus by the fact that the new government, as part of its efforts to cut taxes while balancing the budget, plans to hike fees for students.

"Of course the anti-immigrant rhetoric isn't great. But many students came here first and foremost to vent their anger about the coming deterioration in their standard of living," Lukas, 21, told AFP.

"Enrolment fees are going to be 500 euros per semester. For a lot of people among us that represents a lot," the engineering student said.