Austrians protest rightist event, welcome refugees
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Austrian capital Vienna to rally against a major annual event that largely attracts members of the country’s right-wing extremists.
Nearly 3,000 people took part in the Friday protest at Vienna’s imperial Hofburg palace, where a conservative student organization was hosting the so-called Academics Ball. The event traditionally attracts right-wing political activists, including leading members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).
The protesters marched amid heavy police presence while carrying placards reading “Muslims and refugees welcome”, “FPO out – refugees in” , “Fight racism” and “No to the headscarf ban.”
“Today the protest is especially taking a stand against the racist FPOe, against the racist policies and hatred that continues to take place, and is being supported by the government by now,” one protester told AFP.
Other protesters stated that they took part in the rally to express opposition to a larger trend of populist right-wing politics taking shape in Australia, across Europe as well as globally.
Founded in 1935, the Academics Ball is a controversial calendar event for the German National Association of Austria. It is a well-known gathering for Austrian and German nationalist student fraternity members.
The event is traditionally held at Hofburg palace, the large imperial complex in the center of the nation’s capital that also hosts the office of the president of Austria and international organizations.
The choice of venue has raised concerns among many in the country, leading some to see it as a scheme to portray the event and its marginal right-wing organizers as mainstream.
“We have to say something against this, you cannot let them turn this into a normal thing, without anyone getting upset about it when people attend this ball,” said another protester.
In previous years, protest rallies against the annual ball have turned violent and resulted in detention of some protesters by police forces. During the Friday rally, police closed off large sections of Vienna city center ahead of the FPOe event.
This year’s protest, however, did not draw as many participants as in previous years. The lower turnout is largely attributed to the results of the presidential polls in December, in which former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen defeated the far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer.