Minaret debate continues as Vienna vote approaches

Freedom Party (FPÖ) leader Heinz-Christian Strache has spoken out against the construction of additional minarets in Austria.The right-winger said on state-owned TV channel ORF’s “Sommergespräche” (Summer Talks) series last night (Mon): “We say yes to houses of prayers, but no to minarets and muezzins.”Strache’s statement comes after Anas Schakfeh, president of the Austrian Islamic Denomination (IGGiÖ), suggested the construction of “visible” mosques featuring minarets in all nine Austrian provincial capitals.The FPÖ chief branded Schakfeh’s appeal “disconcerting”, while Social Democrats (SPÖ) attacked FPÖ general secretary Harald Vilimsky for calling mosques “hotbeds of radical Islam”.There are around 200 mosques in Austria, but only three of them (Vienna, Bad Vöslau, Telfs) feature minarets.Schakfeh, who said the around 500,000 Muslims living in Austria were “better than our reputation”, also caused controversy by claiming many immigrants could not learn German before coming to Austria.The coalition formed by the SPÖ and the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) introduced stricter immigration laws earlier this year that require people who want to settle in Austria to have basic German skills upon arrival.The office of ÖVP Interior Minister Maria Fekter dismissed Schakfeh’s claims yesterday. A spokesman for the right-wing minister said everyone who wanted to move to Austria was able to sit German lessons beforehand.Schakfeh argued the new law forced poor countryside residents in foreign countries to immigrate twice – first to big cities to take part in German classes and then to Austria.The FPÖ can brace for strong gains in the 10 October Vienna election, according to recent surveys. The party garnered 14.8 per cent in the 2005 vote, while right-wing archrivals the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) had the support of just 1.2 per cent. Former ORF business journalist Walter Sonnleitner is the BZ֒s front runner for the upcoming election, while federal FPÖ chief Strache also acts as head of the party’s Vienna branch.Strache recently revealed his “vision” to become mayor of Vienna one day. SPÖ Mayor Michael Häupl has meanwhile been criticised by fellow SPÖ members for branding Strache a “loser” amid fears the controversial populist will only benefit from such attacks.Häupl is expected to step down within the next few years regardless of the outcome of the election. He has been the federal capital’s mayor since 1994. Vienna has had only SPÖ mayors since the end of World War Two.SPÖ councillor Christian Oxonitsch or SPÖ Vice Mayor Michael Ludwig may succeed Häupl, while SPÖ councillor Sonja Wehsely is also seen as having chances to get the post.The SPÖ won a majority of seats in the city parliament in the 2005 election (49.1 per cent) in which the ÖVP came in second (18.8 per cent) ahead of the FPÖ and the Greens (14.6 per cent).The Social Democrats said they would invite the Greens and the ÖVP for talks if they lost their majority. Christine Marek’s ÖVP is tipped to be the SP֒s preferred coalition partner.Prestigious political strategist Stanley Greenberg will again be a consultant for the SP֒s Vienna branch during its election campaign. Greenberg – who worked for former US President Bill Clinton and ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair – has been used by the Viennese SPÖ department several times over the past few years.Analysts said the SPÖ should stress the city’s high living quality as confirmed by various international studies such as the 2010 survey by Mercer in which the Austrian capital was in first place.