Many police, few protesters as far right enters Austrian government


Hundreds of police sealed off part of central Vienna on Monday as Austria became the only western European country with a far-right party in power, but protests against the swearing-in proved small and largely peaceful.

Conservative Sebastian Kurz, who is just 31, became chancellor in a coalition with the far right two months after winning a parliamentary election with a hard line on immigration after Austria was swept up in Europe's refugee crisis in 2015.

The last time the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) entered government in Austria, demonstrations were so big that the cabinet took a tunnel from the chancellery to the swearing-in ceremony at the president's office across the street.

There was no need for that this time as, almost 18 years on and to a significantly more muted reaction, the country once again became an exception among its peers, but in a very different European political landscape.

Protests nearby drew only a fraction of the tens of thousands who gathered in 2000; criticism from across the continent has also been more restrained. Police wore riot gear and stationed two water cannon at the main protest site.

"We will certainly not be going underground to the Hofburg, but rather with our heads held high in the street," FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache said earlier in an interview with regional newspapers. He was referring to the former imperial palace that houses the president's office.

This time, police cleared a large area around the head of state's office, keeping several thousand protesters about 100 metres away in a nearby square. Chants could be heard as the new ministers from the FPO and the conservative People's Party crossed the street quietly to the ceremony.

The coalition deal hands control of much of Austria's security apparatus to the FPO, which came third in the election with 26 per cent.

"Any crime committed in Austria is one too many," FPO Chairman Herbert Kickl said as he assumed his new position of interior minister. The FPO was also given the foreign and defence ministries.

The agreement, which made Strache vice chancellor, includes plans to cut public spending and taxes and curb benefits for refugees.

"I fear a total shift to the right, a hardening of the domestic political climate and incitement against outsiders," said 69-year-old protester Wolfgang Pechlaner.

Police said 1,500 officers were deployed. People marched peacefully, carrying placards saying "Nazis out" and chanting "Strache is a fascist".

Police put the number of protesters at 5,000–6,000 and said three arrests were made. Organisers put the turnout as high as 10,000. By late afternoon, the crowds had dispersed. (Reuters)

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