With anti-European Union candidate Norbert Hofer mounting a strong challenge, Austria’s presidential vote could make it the first European country since the end of Nazism to elect a far-right politician as head of state.
VIENNA — By any measure, the string of crimes has been terrible. A grandmother of three, walking her dog, raped along a riverbank. A 10-year-old boy sexually assaulted at a public swimming pool. A 21-year-old student gang-raped near the giant Ferris wheel at Vienna’s famed Prater park. A 54-year-old woman beaten to death on the street.
That the crimes were committed by recent migrants from war zones and an immigrant who had lived illegally in the country for years added an especially volatile element to the political climate before Sunday’s presidential election, when Austria could become the first European country since the end of Nazism to elect a far-right candidate as head of state.
Nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment had already been whipped up by the surge of refugees who streamed into Austria last year. The assaults and the coverage of them in the media could help the far-right presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer of the anti-European Union Freedom Party of Austria, in what appears to be a tight race against Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader running as an independent.
The Freedom Party has assailed crime and migrants for years, but the backlash against the latest influx of asylum seekers has been especially fierce in this election season. Chancellor Werner Faymann, the leader of the coalition government, was forced out May 9 after the two centrist parties that have dominated Austria for decades were trounced in the first round of presidential voting.
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Sunday’s runoff between Hofer, 47, and Van der Bellen, 72, could turn on concerns that the country’s leaders lost control under the tide of refugees and migrants who reached Europe last year.
At least 90,000 people applied for asylum in this country of 8.4 million before Austria’s government shut its borders and persuaded all the Balkan states, through which the migrants trekked from Greece, to follow suit.
Since then, the challenges of integrating the refugees have become clearer as concerns about crime, sexual mores and cultural clashes come into stark relief across Europe, highlighted by the New Year’s Eve assaults on German women by Arab or North African men in Cologne.
A link between the increased numbers of asylum seekers in the country and any rise in sexual assaults and other crimes has not been established statistically, the Interior Ministry and Vienna police say.
Overall, the agencies said, crime has declined in the Austrian capital in the past decade. The number of criminal offenses nationwide also declined, to 417,000 in 2015 from 427,000 in 2014, although a slight rise was recorded in the first quarter of this year, the Interior Ministry said.
But especially grim acts, starting with the rape of the grandmother in September, have been hashed over with increasing intensity, feeding the anti-migrant sentiment that helped propel Hofer to first place in the election’s first round last month.
“Is it just a feeling? Or actually the shocking reality?” the biggest-circulation daily, Kronen Zeitung, asked in early May, reporting on sex crimes and robberies in three Austrian cities. The newspaper asserted that women increasingly fear some public spaces, and questioned whether “one really cannot detect a trend in the statistics.”
Sylvia Bubits, 54, is living the conflicts dividing Austria. She is a longtime resident of Traiskirchen, the town just south of Vienna that hosts Austria’s largest center for refugees. Displaced people first arrived from the conflicts of the Cold War, then from the Balkans and now from the Middle East and beyond.
Bubits is also the daughter of the woman, now 72, who was raped while walking her dog Sept. 1. Since the attack, Bubits said, her mother has gone from being healthy to ridden with anxiety and requiring close attention.
“It goes up and down,” Bubits said, but “it’s basically as if she was suddenly 90.”
On a visit to her home Friday, her mother could barely shuffle a few steps without assistance. Bubits said she and her mother wanted to speak out about what had happened to emphasize that, despite the problems, many Austrians want to help refugees and make a place for them in their country.
According to court documents, her mother was walking her 13-year-old dog by the Schwechat, a river where refugees and residents often bathe. A young man helped her up a slope, but then, the documents said, “exploited her physical weakness,” threw her to the ground, “held her mouth shut, ripped her clothes and forced her to engage” in sex.
Despite the assault on her mother and an earlier attack in which, she said, her 22-year-old son’s nose was broken by refugees, Bubits said she remained a firm advocate for migrants. She cried with joy when she saw two 17-year-old Afghans she helped last year at a reunion at a local cafe.
“There are two sides to this question,” she said of Austria’s coping with refugees, stressing that she believes integration can work.
The man accused of attacking her mother, an Afghan who was caught some weeks later, denied his actions until DNA evidence identified him. He then asserted that he had drunk a bottle of vodka beforehand and could remember little. Prosecutors said he had recalled details that only a perpetrator could have known.
At a trial in January, Judge Petra Harbich sentenced the man, who says he was born on Jan. 1, 1998, meaning he was a minor when he committed the crime, to 20 months in jail for the rape and stealing a pack of cigarettes. That sentence, while in line with treatment of minors in Austria, was ridiculed by one of Bubis’ lawyers, Dietmar Heck, as too mild.
Other Austrians worry that politicians are effectively asking the legal system to tackle questions that judges, lawyers and police cannot answer.
“It is all getting whipped up politically,” said Martin Mahrer, a lawyer who is defending one of three young Afghans who have confessed to raping a female Turkish student in a park April 22. “People now want offenders to be really severely punished.”
Mahrer said some of these young migrants from war zones had arrived with completely un-Western views about women.
“They do not respect the same things we do,” Mahrer said. But, he asked, are foreign offenders less equal before the law than Austrians?
William Spindler, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, noted that most newly arrived refugees do not commit crimes.
“There are many examples of Afghans adapting very well to the West,” he said when asked about men from Afghanistan who are unused to seeing women alone in public, or consuming alcohol. If crimes are committed, individuals should be held to account, Spindler added.
He suggested that any group of people contained potential criminals and said the large number of arrivals last year meant that the total of such individuals could run into the hundreds for any country’s migrants.