Planned protests against the FPÖ’s Akademikerball in Vienna on Feb 3, 2017 | Police mobilize in large numbers | many city streets to be closed off
Vienna’s “Akademikerball” has been under the patronage/protection of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) since 2013, when it took control of the 60-year-old Wiener Korporations-Ball (Vienna Corporations Ball) – named for the conservative Austro-German fraternities (Korporationen), whose past and present members were invitees.
Held annually at the Hofburg palace, the ball (under both its names) has engendered protests from left-leaning, anti-fascist groups and individuals. However, in recent years protests have grown accordingly, as the FPÖ-organized Akademikerball has become a networking event for Europe’s extreme-right political arena – including controversial prominent guests such as France’s Marine Le Pen, Belgium’s Filip Dewinter, and Russia’s Alexander Dugin.
Police out in force, streets to be closed
This year’s event, to be held on Friday, February 3, promises to be no exception. Though the police estimate a smaller turnout – about 2000 – than in previous years (though protest organizer “Offensive gegen Rechts” estimated 8000 marched last year and even more will this time), police are beefing up their presence by putting up to 2700 officers (many of whom have been called in from neighboring provinces) on duty.
Separate protest groups, starting from Praterstern (at 12:00) and Mariahilfer Straße (at 15:30), will converge on the University of Vienna via the Ringstraße by around 17:30, where they will link up and march to Stephansplatz. The police will temporarily close off streets to traffic accordingly, completely blocking off the vicinity around the Hofburg to protesters from 16:00 on (service on the No. 2 Straßenbahn will be disrupted), in order to allow ball guests unfettered access to the event. (UPDATE: Both earlier protests have been canceled, and only the protest starting at the Uni at 17:30 will take place. )
The rising tide of right-wing movements
Despite the FPÖ’s loss in the recent presidential election, the nationalist party has taken consolation and inspiration from the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and Donald J. Trump’s historic win in the U.S.A. (party chief H.C. Strache and twice-failed presidential candidate Norbert Hofer attended Trump’s inauguration in Washington in January), as well as in their continued, if not rising, domestic popularity. Current polling shows more political support for the FPÖ than for any other party.
The recently inaugurated president of Austria and former Green party head, Alexander Van der Bellen, downplayed the significance of the Akademikerball, telling students he didn’t get what all the fuss was about: “What concern is it to me? Let them [have their ball].” He argued that members of Austria’s traditional fraternities (including the far-right Burschenschaften) should be able to gather for a social event, however he was critical of the political message sent by inviting guests such as Le Pen.
Though protests have generally been peaceful, there has been some violence and property damage in previous years – enough to convince police to mobilize in large numbers. Among their thousands will be video producers from the new “Polizei TV,” a YouTube channel set up by the federal police as part of their social-media PR initiative. Their coverage of the demonstration will be available the next day. The police will also tweet up-to-date information on street closures (@LPDWien).
The protests have been heavily criticized by the FPÖ and its student association, the Ring Freiheitlicher Studenten, which condemns what it calls “left-extremists” as well as the succor they allegedly receive from the publicly funded university. University officials typically take a tolerant stance on free speech issues and don’t intervene with non-violent protests on campus. The RFS alleges that such tolerance favors the left, whose protests prevent “alternative” voices from being heard. The OGR anti-fascist group feels that the RFS and far-right political parties are merely trying to silence voices of dissent.