Populism is deeply rooted in Austria’s political tradition, going back to the time of the Habsburg monarchy. Austrian populists targeted the Jews, and later foreigners or Muslims. Nowadays their main targets are the refugees and European integration.
After Austria’s polling stations closed on Sunday, April 24, many people were shocked by the initial media forecasts that Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the populist right-wing Austria Freedom Party (FPÖ) was headed for victory, eventually winning the first round with a huge lead. A few months later, the FPÖ candidate was deprived of a final victory by some 31,000 votes, following an unprecedented level of mobilization before the decisive second round of the election by supporters of Hofer’s rival Alexander Van Der Bellen, nominated by the Green Party.
A decisive role in this reversal of fortunes was played by postal ballots, cast mostly by voters based in large cities, many of whom favored the former Green Party chairman Alexander Van der Bellen. However, in early July Austria’s Constitutional Court ruled that in counting the postal ballots not all the requisite rules to ensure equality and anonymity of the vote had been adhered to, and ordered a re-run of the second round of the election.
Regardless of the final outcome of Austria’s presidential election, what has happened so far has confirmed that this country of eight million is apparently home to the most successful rightwing populist party in Europe today. No other party of similar hue, whether in France, the Netherlands or any other country, has managed to get as close to an office of such constitutional importance and been able to exercise real political influence as Austria’s FPÖ.
At first sight it might seem that the reasons for the rise of the Freedom Party are similar to those in other European countries: the fear of thousands of immigrants arriving in Europe combined with uncertainty about the future. Admittedly, Austria was one of the Central European countries most affected by the 2015 wave of refugees, alongside Germany and Hungary, a fact that could have contributed to the rise of populism. Nevertheless, the Freedom Party’s strong showing cannot be attributed solely to the effects of the refugee crisis. After all, the party had led in the opinion polls well before anyone started talking of refugees.
It might even be said that the long-term and, indeed, long-lasting political strength of the party would have been unthinkable without the existence of a very specific biotope of Austrian politics. Having emerged immediately after World War II, it evolved over the following decades, engendered by a consensual, rather than competitive, approach to politics that prevailed in Austria. This was symbolized by what has become known as social partnership [Sozialpartnerschaft], whereby all key decisions pertaining to the country’s economic development were arrived at by agreement between the representatives of employees and employers, and were subsequently endorsed by grand coalition governments, in other words by a coalition of the country’s two major political parties.
This consensual mechanism had its justification in the years following the formation of the second Austrian republic. At that point it helped to stabilize society and prevent a return to an open political confrontation of the kind which, in the interwar years, had resulted in a brief civil war. However, the system that initially worked well began to falter as time went by. The undisputed stability ensured by the system actually minimized political competition, for example by effectively preventing the left and the right from taking turns in running the country. A further consequence was that parties within grand coalition governments kept blocking each other, thus breeding corruption and dependencies, i.e. clientelism.
As a result, democracy and democratic processes became discredited in the eyes of the citizens, who stopped regarding it as the best of all bad forms of government. Instead, there was a growing demand for strong leaders or, at least, for a “proper clean-up.”
The FPÖ has been fighting the grand coalition system for years, pretending that it was trying to make things work better. In fact, their criticism of Austria’s political reality intentionally glossed over the fact that the Freedom Party has, strictly speaking, always been a part of the system, particularly on the regional and local level where proportional representation continues to operate. This means that each political party, provided it has gained a certain number of seats, is represented in the local or regional government, which effectively eliminates any differences between government and opposition. And since in this situation the Freedom Party often ends up with less important or purely formal portfolios, they can pretend that they are not involved in government at all, and can use oppositionist rhetoric.
The Freedom Party’s leader Jörg Haider had for many years demonstrated virtuoso skills in using this political tactic. In the 1990s, by skillfully combining this approach with a great deal of opportunism, he easily managed to penetrate areas that had for many years been under the control of the conservative People’s Party or the social democrats. He achieved this by making the key electorate of both major political parties feel that he was a better social democrat or representative of the people, while the two original parties had become indistinguishable.
Haider’s methods included intentional provocations that gradually eroded the presumed unassailable premises of public discourse. For instance, he described the idea of an Austrian nation as “an ideological monstrosity” or praised the “proper employment policy” that prevailed under the Third Reich. He took aim at taboo subjects of the postwar social consensus, including the idea of an Austrian nation independent of the Germans, or the role Austria played following its annexation by Germany in 1938. Although he caused public outrage, he also undermined the myth of the previously touted “anti-fascist roots” of the second Austrian Republic.
By doing so he gradually succeeded in sowing distrust in the political system established in the country after 1945. He promised new policies that would benefit the majority of the population. However, he was hampered by his own party’s “Greater Germany” ideology, whose basic philosophical tenet was, simply put, a questioning of Austria’s political independence. In the late 1990s he developed a new party program, which negated everything the Freedom Party had previously stood for: the FPÖ, which had always defined itself as an anti-clerical party, suddenly began to emphasize Christian traditions and Haider himself became a regular guest at the home of one the most conservative Austrian bishops of the day, Kurt Krenn of St Pölten.
A further move towards weakening the party’s original ideological principles came with the official repudiation of the Greater Germany ideology, which Haider mocked as “Deutschtümelei” (hyper-Germanness) and replaced it with Austrian patriotism. To show that he was serious about this, he purged the FPÖ’s broad leadership of all the representatives of the German national faction. They regarded this as treachery and a sign of ingratitude, not least because these circles had been instrumental in Haider’s election as party leader back in 1986.
The traditional FPÖ elites were therefore greatly relieved when in 2005 Haider left the Freedom Party together with his faithful followers to form his own political grouping, even though it soon transpired that he had left the party in a disastrous state: without key staff and with huge debts.
Only later, following Haider’s untimely death, did it transpire that he was also partly responsible for the greatest financial scandal of the second Austrian Republic, the bankruptcy of the Hypo-Alpe Adria Bank. The bank, headquartered in the southern Austrian state of Carinthia, had for many years been inseparably linked with the policies of Jörg Haider, who had twice served as state governor. The bank subsidized a number of his high-profile projects, which the state’s budget was unable to cover. In exchange the politician found the bank an attractive foreign partner which—to be fair—was quite oblivious of this background, and contributed to the bank’s adventurous expansion to the Balkans. What characterized the Freedom Party in its post-Haider period was a return to its original German national roots. The party’s new chairman Heinz-Christian Strache began, quite systematically, to attract to his inner circle the members of Greater German student fraternities [Burschenschaften], many of whom were rather well-off and willing to support the party both personally and financially.
This was how the FPÖ’s close leadership came to be joined by people such as Johann Gudenus, who is the party’s foreign policy expert and its link to circles close to the Russian government. The party’s inner circle also includes its candidate in this year’s presidential election, Norbert Hofer.
Regarded by many as “the party’s friendly face,” Hofer’s manner is strikingly different from the often histrionic Strache who, until recently, scored his greatest successes by playing the anti-Islamic card. Nevertheless, Hofer does belong to the Marko-Germania fraternity, regarded as one of the most controversial groups within the Greater German political spectrum. This attitude has undoubtedly found its reflection in the FPÖ’s new political program, which Hofer has been promoting and which has reinstated the traditional “credo” whereby Austria forms part of the “German cultural space.”
In spite of this, perhaps rather ironically, Austria’s Freedom Party is striving for a much broader, de facto pan-European reach, hoping to become something of an avant-garde or nucleus of a “political international” of all similar movements in Europe, united by their revulsion to the European Union in its current institutional form, a fear of uncontrollable migration into the European continent, and scaremongering about Islam and its political goals.
Thus Vienna has, over the past few months, hosted several meetings of the creme de la creme of Europe’s ultra-right populist scene, from France’s Marine Le Pen to the Dutch Geert Wilders.
In the past, every previous attempt to forge cooperation within this group, for example as part of a joint faction in the European Parliament, has foundered on the egotism of individual party leaders.
Now, however, it seems that the prospect of the possible success of their endeavor to destroy the EU has succeeded in mobilizing these parties while also resulting in a—probably temporary—change in their political strategy. For instance, it is quite obvious that this is why the FPÖ has somewhat tempered its anti-Islam rhetoric, which might have put off some of the more moderate Euroskeptic political groups such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The re-run of the Austrian presidential election is thus rather convenient for the Freedom Party as it is precisely in this context that their candidate Norbert Hofer is ideally placed to promote a new, more moderate face of European right-wing populism. Should he actually win the presidency, it would be news as grave for the EU as the British vote for Brexit.
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