VIENNA — Austria's far-right Freedom Party is coming under fire for inflammatory newspaper campaign ads focused on Turkey and Israel ahead of next month's European elections.
Critics from across the political spectrum — including the chancellor — say the ads are a crass attempt to shore up anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment.
The ads, the first of which appeared in the mass-circulation Kronen Zeitung, stress that the Freedom Party would veto EU accession of both Turkey and Israel to avoid "getting sucked into the bloody Middle East crisis."
The latest ad, which appeared Thursday in the tabloid Oesterreich, even features a small photo of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and quotes him as saying that Israel's accession to the EU was an "option."
Focus on Israel is new
Israel is not vying for entry in the EU. Even if it applied, its chances would be remote at best as it is not a European state — a basic application requirement under the founding EU treaties.
While the Freedom Party has blatantly targeted Muslims and Turkey for some time, the focus on Israel is new.
In an unusually harsh response, Chancellor Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat, called Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache a "hate preacher" in a newspaper interview this week.
"It cannot become a trivial offense in our country to establish oneself using Israel and religious feelings in order to incite hatred and gain a few votes," Faymann said in a subsequent statement. "I consider this a disgrace for a politician."
The 27-nation EU opened membership talks with Turkey in 2005, but there has been little progress because of disagreements over issues such as human rights, Cyprus and general opposition from some countries — including Austria.
Strache, who has ambitions to become the mayor of Vienna, has also caused controversy for holding up a cross at a recent demonstration against the expansion of a Muslim center.
Too early to forecast
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, Austria's top churchman, said in a sermon Thursday that the cross was a symbol of reconciliation that must not be misused politically or used against other religions.
Analysts say it is still too early to forecast how the Freedom Party will do on June 7, election day. In the last European elections in 2004, the party got roughly 6 percent of the vote and one mandate. In September's national elections, it took 17.5 percent of the votes and came in third behind the center-left Social Democrats and conservative People's Party.
Christoph Hofinger, co-director of the SORA Institute on Social Research and Analysis, said the Freedom Party would likely see significant gains compared to five years ago.
"They over-stretched it a bit with their aggressive slogans — it's really, really hard to predict how they'll do," Hofinger said.
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