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Five things you need to know about the Lower Austria elections

One of Austria's most populous provinces is set to choose a new government this Sunday. But why does that matter?

Five things you need to know about the Lower Austria elections
Lower Austria has many touristic spots, mountains, vineyards, ruins, and major cities. Pictured is the Göttweig Abbey, near Krems. (Photo by Leonhard Niederwimmer on Unsplash)

Austria is heading into one of its most significant elections as Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) heads to the polls on Sunday, January 29th, to elect a new regional parliament. 

Current governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner (ÖVP) is seeking reelection, but her party, the centre-right ÖVP, has dropped on voting intention polls.

According to an OGM/Kurier poll from January 21st, the regional ÖVP party, known as VPNÖ, leads the race with 37 percent of voting intentions – far from the majority it would need to govern without a coalition.

Then, the far-right party FPÖ follows with 26 percent of the votes. Next is the centre-left SPÖ with 23 percent, the liberal NEOS with 7 percent and the Greens with 6 percent.

The country has its eyes on this election. But why is it so important and what do you need to know about it?

Lower Austria is a prominent Austrian province

Firstly, Lower Austria is a very significant Austrian province. It’s the second-most populous state in Austria after the capital – it is also the largest state by area. Furthermore, the region surrounds Vienna and many workers in the capital live in nearby cities, as Lower Austria has dozens of commuter towns. 

The state capital is Sankt Pölten, and other major cities include Wiener Neustadt, Amstetten, Klosterneuburg, Krems an der Donau and Stockerau.

READ ALSO: Can the Austrian president refuse to appoint a far-right chancellor?

Historical loss for the ÖVP predicted

To say that the state is a stronghold of the centre-right political party ÖVP, the Austrian People’s Party, is an understatement. The ÖVP has been ahead of the provincial government (and of much of its municipalities) ever since the war. Moreover, it currently holds a majority in the regional parliament, meaning that it rules without the need for a coalition partner.

But things are about to change. Voting intention polls show that the ÖVP will most likely lose its majority in Lower Austria, a testament to the plummeting popularity of the centre-right party.

From the around 50 percent of votes which gave it 29 seats in parliament, the party is now polling at 37 percent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How do Austrians elect their chancellor?

Not only does that mean Austria will likely see a historical coalition talk taking place in the state, but Lower Austria is also responsible for a large part of the votes that the ÖVP gets in federal elections.

Losing those voters locally might mean a big upset ahead in the National Council, and the parties all know it, with all of the major ones fighting to get voters.

… and a historical win for the FPÖ

At the same time as the ÖVP drops in voter preference, the far-right party FPÖ, known as the Freedom Party, is rising. In the last local elections in 2018, they received 14.8 percent of the votes but now are polling in second place, with 26 percent.

The leader of the FPÖ and former Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl waves the Austrian flag. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

This mirrors a federal rise by the FPÖ, which now polls in first when citizens are asked who they’d vote for in the parliamentary elections. The rise of the far-right is down to many reasons, from its stance on polarising topics such as the Covid-19 pandemic to criticism over the government’s actions regarding the inflation crisis and migration.

READ ALSO: Why is support for Austria’s far-right FPÖ rising?

In Lower Austria, surveys show that citizens are concerned about inflation, climate crisis, and asylum and immigration, many topics where the raging FPÖ speech thrives. 

The election could be seen as an early national vote

Lower Austria is relevant geographically, economically and culturally. With its enormous population, results in the state are often seen as a preview or at least a taste of what’s to come in federal elections. 

And Austria is set to have its next parliamentary elections in the Autumn of 2024, so all eyes are now on Lower Austria.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

Just as voting intention polls show ÖVP dropping and the FPÖ rising in the federal scenario, the same is seen in the province. Austrian politicians and analysts are watching closely to see how exactly the polls translate to actual votes, how this will influence coalition talks and what a new government will look like there.

Foreigners are still excluded from the democratic process

Something else you should know about the Lower Austrian elections: foreigners are excluded from the democratic process.

The only people who are eligible to vote, according to the government, are those who:

  • are at least 16 years old on election day, January 29th 2023, and
  • on the cut-off date, November 18th, 2022: have Austrian citizenship, have their main place of residence in Lower Austria or are Austrians living abroad who had their last main place of residence in Lower Austria before their stay abroad, and are not excluded from the right to vote due to a court conviction

Foreign residents of Lower Austria, even those with a main residence there for decades and who pay their taxes there, cannot vote in the state elections. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I vote in Austria’s presidential elections?

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In Austria, Russia far-right sect tries to get foothold in Europe

Ines and Norman Kosin left everything behind to follow the teachings of Anastasia, a far-right Russian sect that preaches a return to the land - while living in Austria.

In Austria, Russia far-right sect tries to get foothold in Europe

They used to work on Sylt, a trendy holiday island in the Baltic off northern Germany.

“Our life was very secure, but our heart was not happy,” said Ines, a pastry chef and chocolate maker. “Something was missing,” she said.

So three years ago they set out to found a New Age Anastasian community on an isolated farm in the bucolic Burgenland of eastern Austria.

Interest in the movement — whose teachings reject much of modern medicine, contain anti-Semitic tropes and qualify democracy as “demonocracy” — surged during the pandemic.

The neo-pagan sect began in Russia in 1996 inspired by a series of bestselling books called the “Ringing Cedars” by Russian entrepreneur Vladimir Megre.

READ ALSO: Akademikerball: What’s the story behind Vienna’s annual glitzy ball for the far right?

Mysterious prophet

He claims the teachings come directly from Anastasia, a mysterious hermit with supernatural powers he met in the Siberian taiga. The beautiful blonde preached against the “enslavement” of modern industrial society and the “dark forces” leading humanity to disaster.

As her prophet, Megre passed on her call for people to return to living in harmony with nature in “kinship” groups on small, self-sufficient permaculture farms.

The group claims some 400 Anastasian settlements have since sprung up across Russia.

Norman Kosin dreamed of welcoming 100 families to an Anastasian “space of love” in Austria.

READ ALSO: Why is support for Austria’s far-right FPÖ rising?

“Imagine a doctor, midwives, lumberjacks and artisans all settling down with each one plying their trade, doing what fulfils them as humans,” said Kosin, who hopes to do the same, touching his cedar wood medallion for “positive energy”.

But so far Kosin has not been able to persuade anyone to join them permanently in Austria.

In another blow, officials have asked them to leave the country because they failed to show sufficient income to stay.

Ines and Norman Kosin left everything behind to follow the teachings of Anastasia, a far-right Russian sect that preaches a return to the land. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Kosin, who is sometimes known online as Felix Kramer, or Felix von Elysion (“from Elysium”, the name of his hoped-for community), has also campaigned against Covid vaccines and restrictions.

The couple took two of their three daughters, aged 10 and 14, out of school in protest at Covid testing and “indoctrination” at school. Their four-year-old still goes to kindergarten.

“Children’s souls are so innocent,” he said, drawing parallels with what he called anti-Russian “propaganda” since the war in Ukraine, which he said was  “marking people for life”. Kosin regularly denounces media “lies” in online conspiracy theory channels that have several hundred thousand followers, and is convinced that the “system” — which he claimed “degenerated” people — will collapse.

‘Anti-Semitic elements’

He said the Anastasia movement has between 3,000 and 4,000 followers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, with members scattered across the rest of Europe from Portugal to Bulgaria.

A recent Austrian government report said the “pandemic has given Anastasia a considerable boost in German-speaking countries,” highlighting links with the anti-vax movement.

Ulrike Schiesser from Austria’s Federal Office for Sectarian Affairs, which monitors sects, said the movement has attracted official scrutiny because of its “anti-democratic” stance. 

READ ALSO: What are the biggest threats facing Austria this year?

While the movement “contains all sorts of harmless ideas for better living,” she told AFP, “it poses a problem… because it positions itself against democracy, the state and science.”

Schiesser said “the anti-Semitic elements clearly present” in the sect’s books were “generally ignored, denied or played down” by members, who refuse to “criticise the guru’s writings”. Kosin defended the books, saying “because of two or three chapters, everyone who reads the works is placed in the national socialist (Nazi)