VIENNA -  With a heavy police presence keeping thousands of protestors at bay, Austria’s far right was sworn in Monday as part of the new government, rounding off a triumphant year for Europe’s nationalists.

The coalition between the conservative People’s Party (OeVP) and the Freedom Party (FPOe) has pledged to stop illegal immigration, cut taxes and resist EU centralisation. It is led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who took over the OeVP in May and yanked it to the right, securing his party first place in October elections. At 31, Kurz is the world’s youngest leader.

At his side for the investiture by Austria’s president in the Hapsburg dynasty’s imperial palace in Vienna was FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, now vice-chancellor, and FPOe general secretary Herbert Kickl, the new interior minister. Strache has said Islam “has no place in Austria” and last year called German Chancellor Angela Merkel “the most dangerous woman in Europe” for her open-door refugee policy.

On Sunday, Strache trumpeted to his 750,000 followers on Facebook that the new government would slash social benefits for asylum-seekers.

“It will no longer happen that migrants who have never worked here a single day or paid anything into the social system will get thousands of euros in welfare!” he said in a post that has gained 10,000 “likes”.

Kickl is a former speechwriter for Strache’s predecessor Joerg Haider, whose 2000 entry into government prompted an outcry and soul-searching in Europe that appear largely absent this time.

Some 5,500 people took part in demonstrations on Monday, police told AFP, brandishing placards such as “refugees welcome” and “Nazis out” and “No Nazi pigs”.

A heavy police presence of about 1,500 officers, with helicopters overhead and water-cannon trucks at the ready, blocked off the area around the Hofburg palace.

At one point police fired a smoke grenade when some protestors tried to break through a barricade, an AFP photographer said, but otherwise police said there were only minor incidents.

“I am very worried,” protestor Stefanie, 26, told AFP. “We saw what happened 15 years ago. The rich are favoured at the expense of the weak, the poor, refugees.”

The FPOe also obtained the defence and foreign ministries, while the OeVP got finance, economy and justice amongst other portfolios, and will continue to handle EU affairs.

Both Kurz and Strache won over voters two months ago by stoking concerns about immigration after the record influx in 2015, mirroring elections elsewhere in Europe this year.

Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party became the second-largest in The Netherlands, Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front was in a runoff for the presidency and the Alternative for Germany entered the Bundestag.

“Eurosceptic politics is now mainstream,” Nigel Farage, former head of the UK Independence Party, said on Twitter. But the FPOe is rare in western Europe in securing real power.

 The UN rights chief said Monday that the far-right tilt of Austria’s new coalition government marked a “dangerous development”, and cautioned against “the peddling of fear” in European politics.

“I am very worried,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told AFP in an interview, cautioning that the new Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s decision to take hard-right positions on things like immigration to win support marked “a dangerous development... in the political life of Europe.”

Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) was sworn in Monday as part of the new government, headed by Kurz and his conservative People’s Party (OeVP).

Kurz took over the OeVP in May and yanked it to the right, securing his party first place in October elections. At 31, Kurz is the world’s youngest leader.

“I am unsettled by what has happened in Austria in the last six months, that the former foreign minister (moved) hard-right on the issue of immigration and migrants rights so that he could basically secure the votes that had previously gone to Freedom Party in order to win the chancellorship,” Zeid said.

Zeid criticised Kurz for what he termed “complete opportunism”, and warned of the example the young chancellor was setting for other politicians around Europe.

“I think the demonstration effect to other leaders in Europe could be something that we need to pay a deep attention to,” Zeid said.

Others unable to win at the ballot boxes with a purely hard-right approach might learn from Kurz’s approach, he warned.

“You don’t come from the hard right... You come from right of centre or centre, and (move) hard-right just on (hot button) issues to win support, and that is a dangerous development.”

Zeid harshly criticised politicians across Europe willing to turn to “the peddling of fear as a means of getting to political office... and directing the blame at a particular target population.”

He warned of the rise of a “sort of ethno-nationalism, chauvinistic nationalism” across Europe, and stressed that the continent had been beset by such ideas before.

“We just have to wind back 104 years (to before World War I) and we were there,” he said.

“The extreme right really has to think very carefully (about) where they are leading their countries and the continent more generally.”

 

Speaking at a far-right congress in Prague on Saturday, Wilders said the FPOe’s entry into government was “an excellent result”, while Le Pen called it “very good news for Europe”.

“Every election demonstrates a form of rejection of the European Union,” Le Pen said, echoing the euro-scepticism shown by the FPOe in the past.

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen called Monday on the new government to show “respect for people who think differently, respect for the rights of minorities and support for the weakest in our society”.

Both Kurz and Strache emphasised however on Saturday that Vienna would stay staunchly pro-EU, ruling out a referendum on EU membership.

But Kurz said that during Austria’s presidency of the EU, set for the second half of 2018, Vienna would press for Brussels to have less say in areas that he believes should be up to member states.

Kurz, due in Brussels on Tuesday, said he envisions an EU which should be “stronger in big questions and which should step back on smaller issues”.

Austria will also “actively work” towards easing EU sanctions on Russia - a demand of the FPOe - but only “in unison” with the rest of the EU. It also wants Turkey’s talks to join the bloc to end.

“It’s a great day for our homeland Austria,” Strache said on Facebook on Monday.