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Austria's Coalition Government Includes Party Linked To Ex-Nazis


Austria has just become the country with the youngest head of government in the world. Thirty-one-year-old year old Sebastian Kurz is due - well, was sworn in as the country's chancellor this morning. But Kurz's youth is not the only reason people are paying attention to the new government in Austria. The coalition he is leading is controversial because it includes a nationalist party linked to former Nazis. In the new government, the Freedom Party controls the Foreign, Interior and Defense ministries, and that's raising concerns in Austria and also abroad. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has more.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The last time the Freedom Party was sworn into the Austrian government was 17 years ago. At the time, the presence of a far-right party, once headed by a former Nazi minister, led other EU states to freeze diplomatic relations with the Alpine country. This time, however, the reaction is muted, given the anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment expressed by the Freedom Party is pretty common these days, not only in Austria, but across Europe. The new Austrian chancellor is Sebastian Kurz.



NELSON: He says voters decided Austria needs to change, and we are going to give them that change over the next five years. The 31-year-old chancellor says his new governing coalition, made up of his center-right People's Party and its nationalist junior partner, will lower taxes, increase security and pursue a pro-European agenda.

GERNOT BAUER: The red line for the People's Party and Sebastian Kurz is the European Union.

NELSON: That's Gernot Bauer, who is the national desk editor at the Austrian newsmagazine Profil.

BAUER: So he wants to make clear that the other EU member states can rely on Austria.

NELSON: Bauer says in return for the Freedom Party curbing its anti-EU fervor, it gained many concessions. They include seven key cabinet portfolios, including the Foreign and Interior ministries.

BAUER: One of the big ideas of the Freedom Party is to have homeland security now.

NELSON: Bauer says it's likely that, rather than opening a new agency, the homeland security name will be incorporated into an existing ministry, like Defense. He adds the Freedom Party use of the moniker is inspired by the admiration many members have for U.S. President Donald Trump.

BAUER: We have law enforcement. We have our military. We have our intelligence services. But the term homeland security in Germany will be Heimatschutz. It sounds a little - we had something like this in the '30s.

NELSON: And that makes some Austrian minorities, like Muslims, rather nervous. A flood of asylum-seekers and terror attacks in Europe carried out by Muslim extremists have helped the Freedom Party persuade a growing number of Austrians that Muslims, even those who've lived here for generations, threaten their safety and Christian identity. Viennese Councilman Omar al-Rawi recalled a recent parliamentary session at which a Freedom Party member spoke out against funding youth centers because too many Muslim youngsters were going there.

OMAR AL-RAWI: This is a - really, a very bad development that is happening, and that's why there is a very famous saying in Austria. They say (foreign language spoken). So combat the beginnings of any bad developments.

NELSON: World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder called it, quote, "severely disquieting" that a party whose members have made anti-Semitic statements in the past will now oversee key Austrian ministries. He urged the new Austrian chancellor to not let his new government, quote, "dissolve into dangerous populism."

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Vienna.


Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.