Populist parties gain more victories in European politics

Right-wing parties chalked up two more victories in Europe over the weekend, coming second in Austria’s national election and entering another state parliament in Germany, putting further pressure on mainstream conservatives to take a harder line on immigration.

The issue has been at the forefront of European politics since 2015, with the influx of more than two million migrants fuelling voters’ fears of unrestricted immigration.

Populist politicians across Europe have seized on the issue to warn that migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East could undermine Europe’s way of life.

The strategy has paid off at the polls, boosting backers of Britain’s move to leave the European Union and helping put a far-right candidate into the final round of France’s presidential elections.

On Sunday, the right-wing Freedom Party received more than a quarter of the vote in Austria’s parliamentary elections, putting it in a strong position to join the next government. Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has described people fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan as “invaders,” and claimed earlier this year that Muslim immigrants create “no-go areas” wherever they settle.

Ahead of the Austrian election, the leader of Austria’s centrist People’s Party, Sebastian Kurz, adopted the Freedom Party’s stance on immigration in a bid to woo their voters.

Whereas such tactics might previously have earned the Freedom Party and even Kurz a rebuke from other European countries, there was little outside criticism this time.

“The consensus in the European Union has become to throw refugees out and it’s become difficult to say the Freedom Party is breaking taboos,” said Carsten Koschmieder, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

Even German leader Angela Merkel, who was lauded for her humanitarian response in opening her country’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees trapped in Hungary in the summer of 2015, has shifted markedly on the issue amid pressure from members of her own center-right Union bloc.

Merkel sought Monday to play down the threat from the right after the nationalist Alternative for Germany won seats in the state legislature in Lower Saxony, a month after becoming the third-strongest party in a national vote.

The party, which goes by the German acronym AfD, now has…

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