The debate chamber was almost full at 9 a.m. on March 30 when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was due to address a special session of the Austrian Parliament. In the central wedge of the semicircular bank of seats on the chamber floor sat the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) leader Herbert Kickl and the 29 fellow members of his party in Parliament. A few minutes after 9, when Zelenskyy began to speak via video link, thanking Austria for its financial and humanitarian support for Ukraine, the entire FPO caucus dramatically stood up and left. Upon the desks in front of their seats, they left behind placards that read “peace” and “neutrality.”
Austria is one year away from federal elections and the far right is quickly gaining ground. From regularly polling in the mid-to-low teens throughout 2020 — sometimes falling to fourth place behind the Green Party — the FPO is now the most popular political party in Austria. Over the past year, their polling numbers have jumped from 20 to 30 percent, going from third to first place in the process. If these numbers hold, the FPO could achieve its best national election result in history and potentially nominate an FPO chancellor to lead the country.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its fallout for Austria, including some of the highest rates of inflation in the European Union (EU), have offered the far right a way back. Akin to the Republican Party in the United States, the FPO has also been able to carve out a niche as a COVID- and vaccine-skeptic party. It is also increasingly antagonistic toward trans rights and other expressions of gender nonconformity, such as Drag Queen Story Hour.
“The positions that the FPO takes on vaccines and the pandemic, and on Ukraine, are not majority positions, but there’s a sizable minority that supports them,” observes Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik, a political scientist and professor at the University of Vienna.
Adopting this extreme oppositional posture has offered the far right a way up in the polls and out of scandal. Just four years ago, the FPO’s coalition with the center-right People’s Party (OVP) collapsed in the wake of the Ibiza affair, which burst into the national consciousness when the FPO’s then-leader Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on tape offering future state contracts to someone he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. As part of the deal, she would buy an Austrian tabloid newspaper and turn it into a pro-FPO vehicle. Then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz ended his coalition with the FPO, saying the party was “damaging our path to change with its behavior.”
Among its own voters, the party’s standing was further damaged by an expenses scandal, in which Strache was reported to have invoiced his rent, prescription medications and computer games to the party. In national elections held in September 2019, the far right’s vote share sunk almost 10 points. This year, though, the party managed to increase its vote in state elections in Lower Austria and Salzburg, in both cases using its gains as a springboard to enter into coalition state governments with the OVP. The FPO now governs as a junior partner in three of Austria’s nine states.
Austria once again finds itself standing before a blue wave of popular support for the far right.
“Austrian politics has, during the past 30 years, entered a [phase] of very high volatility,” Ennser-Jedenastik tells me. “Traditional party identification and party loyalties have eroded.” According to him, this allows for rapid shifts in voter preference from party to party.
“The electorate of the Freedom Party is over-proportionally young and over-proportionally less educated than the average Austrian voter,” says Anton Pelinka, an Innsbruck-based political scientist. “Voters with a certain degree of formal education prefer other parties.”
In this respect, Austria shares something in common with other European countries in which party politics has become more diffuse and so-called “Volksparteien,” broad-based political parties on the center left or center right, no longer command the support they did in the decades immediately following the Second World War. In the past couple of years, right-wing populist parties like the Sweden Democrats, True Finns, Brothers of Italy, Spain’s Vox and the Farmer-Citizen Movement in the Netherlands have all capitalized on declining support for traditional parties and European voters’ search for an alternative in a volatile political and economic climate.
Another factor specific to Austria is its political and cultural conservatism. The FPO’s harsh, restrictive positions on immigration and asylum — including advocating an immediate halt to all asylum applications and other measures that the FPO claims would make Austria a “less attractive destination for illegal migrants” — are also driving its popularity. “The FPO probably has more support in the population for its position on immigration than on COVID,” Ennser-Jedenastik says, explaining that there is a strong link between how important immigration is to voters and their support for the FPO.
“There’s nobody who has very liberal attitudes on immigration and supports the FPO,” he continued. “Those people don’t exist.”
But the FPO’s recent upswing is also rooted in the pandemic, during which the party further cemented its role as the anti-establishment party by coming out against lockdowns as well as mask and vaccine mandates. It established itself not only as the opposition party but also as the party opposed to the other opposition parties, namely the Social Democratic Party (SPO) and the liberal New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS). With a monopoly on COVID skepticism, the FPO was able to hone its broader political strategy, refining its image as an us-versus-them party, with the FPO standing up for the “little man” — the little Austrian man, of course — against the parliamentary monolith unity party of the OVP, SPO, Greens and NEOS.
This also applies to the FPO’s position on Ukraine. Although the Austrian government remains committed to neutrality, it has taken Ukraine’s side in the conflict and participated in the EU’s sanctions against Russia as well as financial and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. The FPO, meanwhile, is staunchly against supporting Ukraine. The party, which in 2016 signed a cooperation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, has accused the EU of “fueling bloodshed on both sides” of the conflict via its financial support for Ukraine.
The FPO has also successfully pushed a message that the war in Ukraine is causing the cost-of-living crisis and supports repealing sanctions against Russia to deal with inflation and rising energy prices. While the Austrian government has tried to institute one-time payments and a cap on electricity prices, Austria’s interest rates remain stubbornly high, and the creeping price increases at the supermarket or the pump remain. All of this provides only more fodder for the FPO’s far-right rhetoric.
Beyond these issues, there is a central personality: Herbert Kickl. After cutting his teeth in politics as a campaign manager and speechwriter, crafting electoral slogans like “Pummerin Statt Muezzin” (“Church Bells, Not Muslim Calls to Prayer”) and “Mehr Mut fuer Unser ‘Wiener Blut’” (“More Courage for Our ‘Viennese Blood’”), Kickl took over the FPO in June 2021. His undistinguished appearance belies his understanding of language and power, as he deploys jargon like “Volkskanzler” (people’s chancellor) and “Systemparteien” (system parties). These slogans were also used by the Nazis in the 1930s.
When the FPO entered into government in 2017, Kickl became Austria’s interior minister, a position he held for almost two years. He is remembered for his obsession with horses, spending millions of euros on a pilot program for a mounted police unit that amounted to nothing. More pertinently, Kickl was widely criticized for suspending the head of Austria’s internal intelligence service and conducting a raid on the agency and several of its staff members over alleged data privacy infringements, acts the opposition saw as politically motivated. His approach to the refugee crisis was, in his words, to make Austria a country where it would be impossible to apply for asylum.
“My goal is zero,” Kickl told Parliament in May 2019, referring to how many refugees he would like to let into the country.
Under Kickl’s leadership, immigration and asylum have remained core FPO themes, with “Festung Oesterreich” (“Fortress Austria”), a spin on “Fortress Europe,” one of Kickl’s most notorious slogans. Opposition to the EU, skepticism about the COVID-19 pandemic and siding with Russia against Ukraine continue to fuel support for the party.
More recently, the FPO has also borrowed a tune from the United States’ culture wars, campaigning against trans rights, Drag Queen Story Hours and gender-inclusive language. The links between the FPO and the American far right are further evidenced by the fact that two of its leading members recently attended a gala hosted by the New York Young Republican Club, where guests included Marjorie Taylor Greene, Donald Trump Jr. and Steve Bannon. Kickl himself was a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest this past May.
“They make this claim to normalcy by saying, ‘All we demand is what is normal,’” Bernhard Weidinger, a researcher of right-wing extremism at the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance, tells me, explaining that this fits in with the FPO’s us-versus-them paradigm and its populist character. The FPO’s opposition to Drag Queen Story Hour is an example of that: The gender binary is “normal”; drag queens are not.
“If you claim to stand for normalcy, you also claim to have a majority of the public behind you,” he continues. The FPO wants to “return the country to normal,” although its version of normal is, in fact, extreme. The party is attempting to shift what is seen as acceptable, to make its far-right politics on gender, Europe and immigration the center ground, and positions held by Austrian liberals and leftists a form of radicalism.
Right now, in light of the polling data and the party’s recent electoral successes at the state level, the FPO’s return to power appears to be a fait accompli. However, some analysts believe that the party’s rise could just as easily be followed by its fall.
The FPO’s recent history is a cycle of boom and bust. Founded in 1955 by former Nazis, the FPO once represented the so-called “third camp” of Austrian politics. Distinct from the country’s two largest political groups, the socialists and Catholic conservatives, the FPO was a leftover soup of liberal nationalists and “Greater German” nationalists. The contemporary FPO, which began to emerge following Joerg Haider’s takeover of the party in 1986, is a far-right populist, Austrian nationalist and anti-establishment party akin to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) or France’s National Rally (RN).
Haider — a flamboyant provocateur who died in a car accident in 2008 — shaped the FPO’s populist image and solidified its core themes: anti-EU, anti-immigration and anti-Islam. He took the FPO into the federal government, though the price for forming a coalition with the OVP in 2000 was that Haider had to give up his dream of personal power, handing the vice chancellorship to a party colleague. This was not the first time the FPO had been part of the federal government; nonetheless, it was subject to EU sanctions from above and a large street-based protest movement from below, neither of which in the end changed the course of history.
Governing and the compromises it demanded so divided the party that, in 2005, Haider broke with the FPO and, taking other politicians with him, formed the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZO) — a party that died with Haider on the side of a road in southern Austria. Following the schism, Heinz-Christian Strache was tasked with rebuilding the FPO. Harnessing the general sense of dissatisfaction with the political establishment across the country, Strache eventually followed other far-right populist movements across Europe in seizing upon the 2015 refugee crisis to turn the tide in the FPO’s favor. Two years later, it finished second in the 2017 parliamentary elections — and found its way back into the Austrian government.
“Freedom Party voters are rather volatile. They would vote for the Freedom Party today, but maybe for another party or they might abstain the next day,” Anton Pelinka explains. Yet another unknown factor is the new leader of the SPO, Andreas Babler, who is seeking to move his party away from the center ground and toward the left. The Communist Party (KPO) is also making something of a comeback at the state level.
While the FPO has an obvious aptitude for electoral politics, it has repeatedly shown itself poor at governance — at least at the federal level. After gaining seats in the government, the FPO’s demise was entirely its own creation, brought down by scandal and sleaze.
“I think one important weakness for the Freedom Party is that it has no links with the social partnership,” says Anton Pelinka of the nexus of labor and industry that shapes federal policy in Austria. “The Freedom Party lacks the ability to recruit the best possible people for leading government positions, meaning cabinet positions,” he continued, adding that there is an absence of support among university-educated Austrians and white-collar workers.
Then there is the question of whether the OVP would want to act as the junior partner to the FPO at the federal level — especially if, in doing so, they would make Kickl chancellor. The new OVP-FPO coalitions in the Lower Austria and Salzburg provinces indicate that this could happen, as does the OVP’s recent repositioning to the right on issues like immigration and the environment. At the same time, several cabinet ministers, as well as the president of the Austrian Parliament, Wolfgang Sobotka, have indicated they would not countenance such a scenario. Longtime members of the OVP have warned that making Kickl chancellor would be the beginning of the end of the party.
Weidinger also wonders whether Kickl would want power at any price. In contrast to the way Strache somewhat moderated the FPO in the lead-up to the 2017 election to prepare to govern, Kickl is doing no such thing. Wounded by the FPO’s split in 2005, Kickl witnessed the potential costs of power.
“It has to be guaranteed that the FPO can get their policies across — that they don’t have to compromise. Being part of the federal government is not a goal in and of itself,” Widinger explains, saying that if the FPO can’t form a government with which to enact its agenda, then it could stay in the opposition and bide its time. “The goal is to change the country.”
Austria is not the only European country where the far right is rising to power. If Kickl were to become chancellor, he would follow the lead of politicians such as Viktor Orban in Hungary and Giorgia Meloni in Italy, previously uncharted territory for Austria’s Second Republic.
“We can fully assume that the FPO would try and do a lot of the things that Orban has done in Hungary,” says Weidinger. “They would certainly try to steer a course towards illiberal democracy in terms of freedom of the press, repression against political opposition, and trying to get the public media, the universities and so on under control.”
However, while the majority of Austria’s voters are still against the Freedom Party, the question remains whether the committed minority for whom the FPO claims to speak will be large enough to propel them into first place in next year’s election — and whether the center-right OVP will act as the check on the far right or as their handmaidens.
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