On December 12, the leader of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, Herbert Kickl, thanked supporters in a Facebook post for showing up to demonstrate at the capitol in Vienna. The party had organized a rally against the government’s measures to curb COVID-19.
Last month Austria reimposed complex coronavirus restrictions, with some, including compulsory vaccination and lockdown for the unvaccinated, to begin in February.
Kirckl claimed a huge, peaceful crowd participated in the Saturday protest.
“Thanks to around 100,000 people who were there on Saturday in Vienna. That was an unmistakable, but at the same time enormously disciplined and completely peaceful sign of the will for freedom and the resistance against this turquoise-green Corona dictatorship and its coercive measures.”
These claims are false.
The police in Vienna estimated only 44,000 protesters. Although the demonstration was generally peaceful, some protesters attacked and attempted to assault journalists. Several were arrested for using fireworks and refusing to wear masks, the police said.
Street videos showed the police detaining people who'd been firing off large fireworks and colored smoke grenades. A video published on YouTube by Forbes showed the protesters throwing snowballs and ice at the journalists who were trailing the marchers on the sidewalks.
Kickl served as Austrian interior minister from 2017 to 2019. He was removed from the office amid a political scandal dubbed the “Ibiza affair” that involved alleged Russian financing for the Freedom Party. Kickl served as the party’s general secretary from 2005 to 2018 and in June was re-elected its leader.
The Freedom Party claims the government’s compulsive coronavirus measures impinge on civil rights and freedoms The party argues that it should be up to individuals to decide on vaccination.
Protests will continue unless the government reverses the vaccination mandate and lockdowns for the unvaccinated, Kickl said in a Facebook post on December 13. He claimed that the government “had run into a corona gutter” and is turning “the population into scapegoats.”
The Austrian government says there will be no forced vaccinations but those who decline will have to pay fines of up to $4,000.
According to the World Health Organization, Austria has the highest coronavirus infections and deaths and the lowest vaccination rate compared with other countries in western Europe. With a population of 9 million, the country reported more than 1.2 million infections and nearly 13,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
Anti-vaccine and anti-mandate protests have been building steam across Europe, where the far-right political parties are “exploiting the anti-vax protests” and “taking advantage of restrictions to further their agendas,” the British iNews reported on November 23.
In the U.K., far-right parties are the super spreaders of coronavirus and vaccine conspiracy theories and are responsible for feeding anti-vaccine extremism, Vice reported on November 29.
“The boom in anti-vaccine movements since the emergence of COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for far-right groups to latch onto protests and rallies, creating a pipeline from vaccine hesitancy to outright conspiracies and extremism,” the report said.
In Germany, police said on December 8, investigators are looking into a right-wing groups’ “credible” assassination plot against the governor of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, for imposing restrictions on the unvaccinated.
In Spain, COVID-19 “denialists” insist that the government’s response to the pandemic is “leading the country to ruin,” the Daily Beast reported in June. Anti-vaccine sentiments and protests were driven by disinformation and social media linked to Russia, the report said.
In Italy, thousands protested in October against the government’s “Green pass” mandate for all workers. The pass is a certificate proving at least one vaccine dose or a negative test for COVID-19 within the prior 72 hours.
Backed by the Forza Nuova and Brothers of Italy right-wing parties, the protests turned into violent clashes with the police, with some breaking into hospitals and emergency rooms and forcing health workers to hide.
In France, the far-right and far-left parties represented by Eric Zemmour, Marie Le Pen and Valerie Pecresse, are challenging incumbent President Emmanuel Macron in the April 2022 elections.
Europe politicians representing radical parties rarely repeat COVID-19 disinformation and conspiracy theories in public, instead relying on pandemic fatigue to appear less extreme, Al Jazeera reported in February, citing Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist.
With the European governments reintroducing stricter measures, the parties position themselves as defenders of civil liberties. That appeals to “very different social groups” united in frustration “not only with COVID-19 policies but also with democracy, with political institutions,” sociologist Johannes Kiess from the University of Siegen in Germany told Deutsche Welle.
“What we have seen everywhere is that actors from the political right are at the helm, organizing and mobilizing,” he said.