Corruption and Collusion Can’t Stop Austria’s Far-Right

Austrian nationalists were caught red-handed in an attempted foreign conspiracy—but the party’s future is as bright as ever.

Former chairman of the Freedom Party FPOe Heinz-Christian Strache gives a press conference in Vienna on May 18, 2019.
Former chairman of the Freedom Party FPOe Heinz-Christian Strache gives a press conference in Vienna on May 18, 2019. HELMUT FOHRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

In a rap song he recorded in 2006, the then-leader of the populist, far-right Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache, presented himself as a modern-day, incorruptible Robin Hood. “Have you got something to hide?” he growled at the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) grand coalition government. He railed against alleged “scandals, bribery, corruption, and treason” and promised that through his leadership “the truth will someday come to light.”

Thirteen years after Strache released that song, and more than one year after he became Austria’s vice chancellor and deputy head of government, that day finally arrived—just not in the way his fans imagined it would. Last week, Strache and one of his closest political allies, Johann Gudenus, were revealed to have solicited a conspiracy with the purported niece of a Russian oligarch. In a video secretly filmed prior to Austria’s 2017 general election, Strache and Gudenus promised to award the Russian government lucrative contracts in exchange for political donations and commitment from the oligarch’s niece to take over Austria’s most influential tabloid and steer its coverage on behalf of the FPÖ.

The video was published last Friday by the German news outlets Der Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, forcing Strache and Gudenus’s immediate resignation and also triggering the end of the ÖVP-FPÖ government headed by 32-year-old Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, which has been in power since December 2017. The chancellor himself faces a vote of no confidence in parliament next week. Snap elections are slated to take place in September.

Although the scandal represents Austria’s biggest political crisis since the end of World War II, most liberal and left-leaning commentators, in Austria and around the world, have found a silver lining in it. They argue that it represents the discrediting of the FPÖ and thus the tail end of the natural life cycle of the far-right populist parties that have been on the rise across the West. Such celebrations, however, are fundamentally mistaken—and not just because the disgraced vice chancellor is already plotting his political comeback.

The far-right in Austria may have lost its current coalition, but it is far from finished. By most indications, the scandal has not cost the party significant popularity among its core supporters. (A first poll conducted three days after the breaking of the political scandal shows the FPÖ just losing slightly among voters, with party support declining from 23 to 18 percent.) It’s impossible to understand the far-right’s current resilience, and its likely future success, without understanding the true sources of its appeal.

In the case of the FPÖ, that requires understanding the origins of the party. The FPÖ’s immediate predecessor was the national-liberal Federation of Independents (VdU), founded in 1949, to not only represent 600,000 former members of the Nazi Party, returning prisoners of war, and exiled Volksdeutsche but also former monarchists and national liberals, who wanted to push for economic liberalization of the Austrian economy, reduce the influence of organized labor, and diminish the power of the Austrian Catholic Church. These various groups never felt represented by the dominant Christian-conservative ÖVP and socialist SPÖ, and the VdU became the main vehicle for protesting their informal power-sharing arrangement over the public sector and state-owned enterprises, known as Proporz.

But even when the VdU succeeded at the polls—it received 12 percent in Austria’s 1949 elections—neither the ÖVP nor SPÖ was willing to form a coalition government with a political faction openly representing ex-Nazi Party members. Those refusals to work together with the VdU triggered its rightward movement and the takeover of the party leadership by more nationalist forces. In 1956—a year after Austria regained its independence following a 10-year occupation by the victorious allies of World War II—Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi SS officer, inaugurated the creation of the FPÖ as the VdU’s successor. But elements of the VdU’s national-liberal factions, ostensibly dedicated to the ideals of the liberal revolutions of 1848, remained in the new party.

The FPÖ’s strength traces back to these origins in two important ways—one quite straightforward, the other less so. First, the FPÖ from the very beginning established itself as a protest party against the establishment that ostracized it, and it embraces that identity today. FPÖ voters first and foremost defined themselves in opposition to the prevailing Austrian political system run by ÖVP and SPÖ elites, which they were conditioned to believe was principally dedicated to keeping them out of power by any means. This also explains the relative subdued reaction by today’s FPÖ voters to the current scandal involving the party’s senior leadership. Many are quick to embrace the various conspiracy theories produced by party media depicting the recent revelations as fake news, a setup by shadowy forces intent on keeping the FPÖ out of power.

The second foundation for the FPÖ’s present resilience is the way it has shed a part of its historical legacy. The FPÖ was founded as a coalition for voters who were dissatisfied with the prevailing political system, not all of whom were nationalistic and far-right. Until a few years ago, it had a national-liberal wing that consistently clashed with more right-leaning, extreme-right forces within the party. (Indeed, during the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s, the FPÖ widely embraced Europe and an economic liberal agenda.) These internal confrontations were always the biggest source of the party’s weakness in the past and ultimately led to the end of three of the four government coalitions the FPÖ has been involved in at the federal level since 1983.

The current scandal, however, can’t widen this split because it hardly exists anymore. In 1986, the party was taken over by the charismatic Jörg Haider, who represented the extreme-right forces unhappy with the avowedly liberal aspects of the party’s agenda. Haider turned the FPÖ into a modern populist far-right movement under the slogan of “Austria First” and ran on an anti-immigrant, law-and-order, and anti-Proporz platform. This led to a splintering off of a liberal faction of members into a new party, although other liberals remained in the party.

Haider’s far-right messaging resulted in the biggest electoral victory in the FPÖ’s history at the federal elections in 1999, beating for the first and only time the ÖVP by a few hundred votes and resulting in a governing coalition between the two. Yet Haider also embodied the internal contradictions of the party. He wanted to simultaneously govern as a quasi-liberal and be in permanent opposition as an outright populist, and he tried to cater to both impulses as party leader. This led to an internal FPÖ civil war that produced an electoral debacle at the federal election in 2002, when 700,000 voters left the party and the party’s support fell from 27 to 10 percent. Haider eventually realized that if he wanted to govern at the federal level, he had to turn his back on the extreme-right elements that he helped create. In 2005, he founded a new party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), consisting of the FPÖ’s remaining liberals and dedicated to economic freedom.

That party withered into political insignificance following Haider’s death in a car accident in 2008. But it nevertheless helps explain the FPÖ’s strength today, albeit indirectly. The departure of the FPÖ’s liberal supporters to the BZÖ permanently ended the infighting that plagued the party from the beginning. When Strache took over the FPÖ in 2005, he built up the party around xenophobic, anti-Islam slogans (“Vienna cannot become Istanbul”) with a core team consisting of members of German nationalist fraternities, the Burschenschaften.

Strache, like Haider, has always had the desire to govern, and to that end he has purged the party of some of its more extreme members and rhetoric to make the FPÖ more attractive to the ÖVP for a coalition government. But he has not had to struggle with the basic unity of his party, which is now an ideological organization rather than a political coalition split along liberal and nationalist lines. (The party also has strong leadership even in Strache’s absence; Norbert Hofer, who earned the votes of an unprecedented share of the electorate in the 2016 Austrian presidential elections for a FPÖ politician, has assumed the chairmanship.) That’s why Austria likely won’t see a repeat of the FPÖ’s 2002 election collapse. The recent revelations about Strache and Gudenus are seen by the party’s core voters as part of a nefarious efforts by the ÖVP and SPÖ to keep Proporz, their political power-sharing system, in place. The difference now is the stronger suggestions that this system has a liberal ideological agenda.

The FPÖ’s current communications strategy caters to this sentiment by attempting to discredit the Kurz-led ÖVP’s ideological move to the right over the last two years. Party news outlets and politicians are already referring to a reversion to the “old ÖVP” and a likely future grand coalition government. Former FPÖ Interior Minister Herbert Kickl noted in a social media post this week that a reason for his dismissal was Kurz’s disagreement with his tough anti-migration policies—an astounding statement given the chancellor’s recent track record on the subject.

This produces the current dilemma of Austria’s political elite. If Kurz, the head of Austria’s strongest party, enters into a grand coalition government with the SPÖ following the September elections, the most likely result will be a strengthened FPÖ, which, as the largest opposition party, will again rail against the so-called corrupt and politically correct establishment, regardless of corruption allegations or even legal convictions in its own ranks. If Kurz, however, decides to give an ÖVP-FPÖ government another shot, chances are that the government will once more collapse because of some FPÖ scandal or other. It’s no accident that governments involving the FPÖ have never lasted longer than two and a half years; the party appears incapable of governing without giving in to its destructive impulses to break up the country’s political system and hollow out its mores and norms.

The FPÖ’s nationalist ideology, as well as its xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric, overshadows how much of the party’s attraction is also fueled by opposition to the prevailing ÖVP-SPÖ political establishment and the Proporz system. Notably, the FPÖ can fight the Proporz inside or outside of government—inside by installing its own party members in key government positions and ousting members of other parties or outside by publicly attacking the FPÖ’s political ostracization, which, along with the party’s usual nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric, will play well with the party base. As a result, no matter what the other parties decide following the September snap elections, the political future of the FPÖ inside or outside of government will likely be brighter than most outside observers assume.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior editor at The Diplomat magazine and senior fellow at the EastWest Institute. Twitter: @hoanssolo

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