Austria's Strache backs far-right 'population replacement' claim

Vice chancellor says Austrians risk becoming a minority because of non-white and Muslim immigration.

    Partners Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, left. and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, right, disagree on the 'population replacement' rhetoric [File:Reuters]
    Partners Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, left. and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, right, disagree on the 'population replacement' rhetoric [File:Reuters]

    The leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPO) has reiterated a racially-charged claim that Austrians were at risk of becoming a minority in their own country.

    Heinz-Christian Strache, FPO leader and Austrian vice chancellor, told journalists on Wednesday that "population replacement" in Austria was "a reality that cannot be denied".

    He was responding to criticism of remarks in an interview with Austria's largest newspaper Kronen Zeitung, in which he said his party was fighting "population replacement".

    The term is associated with a racist conspiracy theory popular in far-right circles, known as the "great replacement". It argues that the white, European - and Christian - population is being "replaced" by a population of non-white, Muslim refugees and migrants.

    Strache said his party had used the term "for decades". 

    "Many citizens rightly say these are political decisions - the extent to which one wants to continue to allow immigration on a massive scale, the extent to which demographic development then leads to a situation where an ancestral population becomes a minority, and many do not want that," he added.

    Strache occupies the second-highest position in government and his party is part of the ruling coalition with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's centre-right People's Party (OVP), which came to power in 2017 with a hard-line on immigration similar to that of the FPO.

    Strache was standing next to Kurz at Wednesday's news conference. 

    Earlier in the day, the chancellor, in an interview on state television channel ORF, had expressed his disapproval of the use of the term.

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    However, in the same interview, Kurz defended his coalition with Strache's FPO party, saying: "When you have a coalition partner, there are always moments when something doesn't suit you."

    Identitarian movement

    Roughly 16 percent of Austria's population has foreign citizenship, national statistics office data for 2018 shows, up from 10 percent a decade earlier.

    Meanwhile, Austria took in roughly one percent of its population in asylum seekers in 2015 during Europe's refugee crisis.

    Arrivals have since slowed to a trickle, but the FPO and OVP have pledged to prevent any repeat of that influx.

    Strache's remarks echo the language used by Austria's Identitarian Movement, a group similar to the alt- right in the United States, which says mass immigration is causing a "great exchange" or "great replacement" and needs to be reversed.

    While the small Identitarian Movement, which is not a political party, has existed for years, it was thrust into the spotlight in March when the man charged with killing 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was found to have made a $1,700 donation to the group.

    That prompted Kurz to call the movement "disgusting" and demand that the FPO sever any ties with it.

    Strache has insisted his party has nothing to do with the movement. But opposition politicians have denounced what they say is a system of thought inside the party, which was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis.

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    Kurz has had to distance himself from his coalition partners before, too. 

    In April, the chancellor also condemned a poem written by the FPO deputy mayor in Adolf Hitler's home Braunau am Inn, Upper Austria, that compared foreign migrants to rats. Strache intervened and the party announced that the politician responsible would be stepping down.

    In March, the FPO expelled two of its local councillors after a police investigation revealed that they had shared Hitler photos and quotes on WhatsApp.

    SOURCE: News agencies