The leaden January skies over Vienna have undoubtedly only added to the gloom for Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer in a month of public unrest over latest round of COVID-19 restrictions.
After an anti-lockdown protest earlier in January, Nehammer promised tougher penalties for those who willfully disregarded public health measures: “Anyone not wearing a mask risks a €500 fine,” he announced to the Austrian Press Agency (APA).
In the Ö1 radio show “Journal zu Gast,” the minister revealed that there will most likely be an attendance limit for future demonstrations along a new “deployment strategy” for dealing with any future unrest, which he was reluctant to share with the public. “I would be a bad interior minister if I did,” he added. “Opponents would then be ready for it.”
He also worried that extremist groups were trying to use the gatherings to spread their agenda. “Currently, my two biggest concerns are the right-wing groups and the jihadists,” concluding, “We are taking threats from both ends of the spectrum very seriously” – an positioning of the jihadists that must have puzzled at least some on the left.
So far Nehammer has little to show for his efforts: Last Sunday, over 10,000 again showed up in the Inner City to protest the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the government – an apparently impromptu gathering that took place despite the police rejecting 15 out of 17 permit requests. The event drew a diverse crowd, from disgruntled citizens, including families with children, to Christian “believers” promoting the healing power of prayer and activists of the Identitarian movement, a prominent pan-European far-right extremist group who were indeed, as Nehammer predicted, using the opportunity to spread their nationalist, anti-immigration agenda. “The protesters didn’t adhere to any COVID prevention measures,” the police reported in a statement. After a couple of frustrating hours, police surrounded the demonstrators and asked them to disband, leading to multiple arrests and some 850 fines, according to a police spokesman. The illegal event was followed shortly after by a 2,500-person march that had been authorized.
Later in the afternoon, another 50 people, some armed with wooden batons, attempted to storm the Austrian Parliament – that seemed intended to echo the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. This action was a bit less glamorous, however, as the building has been under renovation for the past four years and still partially hidden by scaffolding and scrims. It was also empty. In any event, the attempt was checked by the police, who arrested 10.
Among his other troubles, the legal justification for cancelling the demonstrations was itself called into question, most vocally by previous Minister of the Interior Herbert Kickl, a member of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and one of Nehammer’s most vocal critics. “Prohibiting peaceful assemblies is permitted by law, if it is in the interest of public health,” weighed in constitutional law scholar Heinz Mayer.
However, barring counter-protests is more contentious, according to law Prof. Bernd-Christian Funk, as the police were merely assuming that a higher number of attendants would not leave enough space for the mandatory distancing.
“That seems dubious,” Prof. Funk said. “The question is if the authorities based the decisions on facts or just mere assumptions.”
Following these events, Nehammer and police president Gerhard Pürstl held a joint press conference where they described the incident as “a disastrous scene.” The minister stated that the police had had a difficult time as groups were spread throughout the city, fragmenting the response. Nevertheless, “the officers have done a good job,” he emphasized.
With mounting discontent and conspiracy theories running rampant, a similar incident seems inevitable, and both the ministry of the interior and the government as a whole might again be forced to rethink the balance between basic democratic rights and public safety.