Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Austria on Friday to protest against right-wing extremism and racism, inspired by similar rallies in neighboring Germany.
In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands have joined the German protests against the far-right AfD party, after its members were revealed to have discussed a mass deportation plan at a meeting with extremists.
Among the participants was Martin Sellner, a leader of Austria's Identitarian Movement, which subscribes to the "great replacement" conspiracy theory that alleges a plot to replace Europe's "native" white population with non-white migrants.
In the capital Vienna, about 35,000 demonstrators braved rain to gather near the parliament building on Friday evening, police said. Organizers estimated the turnout at around 80,000 people.
"We are here to defend democracy and stand up against the extremist movements that are growing in Europe," one participant, Elena Tiefenboeck, told AFP.
"So that the past doesn't repeat itself" at a time when the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) is expected to win this year's parliamentary elections, the 25-year-old student said.
A win by the FPOe would be a "very worrying" prospect that could further "polarize society", said 53-year-old psychotherapist Barbara Brauboeck.
One banner read "Kickl is a Nazi" in reference to the FPOe's hardline leader Herbert Kickl, known for his fiercely anti-migrant campaigns.
"Some of us have already packed their bags or are thinking about which country to flee to," said local politician and activist Mireille Ngosso, according to public broadcaster ORF.
Similar rallies took place in Innsbruck, where police said around 3,000 people participated, and in Salzburg, where turnout was estimated at roughly 1,400 people.
The rallies were called by the Fridays for Future environmental group along with two other activist groups, Black Voices and the Platform for a Humane Asylum Policy.
- Riding high in polls -
The wave of mobilization against far-right parties was sparked by a January 10 report from the investigative outlet Correctiv, which revealed that AfD members had discussed the expulsion of immigrants and "non-assimilated citizens" at a meeting.
The AfD confirmed its presence at the meeting with extremists, but denied taking on the "remigration" project championed by Sellner.
The party is second in German opinion polls, and leading them in several eastern regions where elections are set to be held later this year.
More than 200 demonstrations are planned across Germany over the weekend, most of them in midsize towns, including in the east of the country, where the AfD has obtained its best electoral results.
Unlike its neighbor, Austria has had a strong far-right political presence since the 1980s.
In 2000, the FPOe under Joerg Haider entered into a coalition government, a first in the European Union, triggering protests of 250,000 people.
The party governed again between 2017 and 2019, in coalition with the conservatives.
Currently the conservative People's Party (OeVP) governs in a coalition with the Greens, but their approval ratings have plummeted ahead of general elections this year, though their exact date has not yet been announced.
But the FPOe is currently leading opinion polls, buoyed by discontent over inflation, migration and the war in Ukraine.
It is already part of coalitions that govern several Austrian provinces.
Earlier this month, Austria's interior ministry warned of a "noticeable influx" in the country's extreme right scene.
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