With days to go before the balloting in the parliamentary elections, the issue of immigration dominates political debate. In 2015, as Germany’s Merkel was admitting refugees from Syria, whose ranks would reach one million, Austria received 90,000 asylum requests. In 2016, that number was 42,000. Inarguably, this flood of immigrants played into the hands of the Freedom Party. Its longtime charges that a tide of non-European Muslims will drain the welfare system, cost Austrian jobs, and drown the culture clearly resonate more than ever.
By John Gizzi
Freedom Party (FPO) leader Heinz-Christian Strache (left) and Sebastian Kurz of the People’s Party, OVP
The defeats of nationalist leaders Marine LePen of France and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands earlier this year afforded evidence that nationalism—also known as right-wing populism—was running out of steam in Europe.
But this attitude began to change on the evening of September 24. That’s when German voters, as widely predicted, re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel and her CDU-CSU (conservative) Party. But in a surprise move, voters gave an unexpectedly high 13.4 % of the vote to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party—which emphasizes a hardline on illegal immigration, an exit from the European Union, a revisionist (and more positive) narrative of Germany’s Nazi past, and a closer relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Making the AfD showing all the more impressive is that the party is barely four years old—the “baby” of the nationalist parties that now bewilder political prognosticators and alter the political playing field of Europe.
All eyes are now increasingly focusing on neighboring Austria and its national elections October 15.
As it was in Germany, an escalating migration and refugee crisis, relations with Eastern European neighbors such as Hungary, and a national government that seems distant and aloof from the people are major factors setting the stage for the political drama now unfolding in neighboring Austria.
And the beneficiary is the Freedom Party (FPO), the voice of Austrian nationalism for more than a generation. According to a just-completed Unique Research/Haute and Austrian TV poll, the Freedom Party is drawing a strong 25 percent of the vote—not far behind the two major parties, the center-right OVP (People’s Party) being at 34 percent and the center-left SPO (Social Democratic Party) 27 percent.
Haider’s Legacy Today
If the five-year-old AfD is the “baby” of European nationalist parties, then the Austrian Freedom Party is surely their “father.”
Founded first in 1949 as VdU (Verband der Unabhangigen) and renamed in 1955 as FPO (Freedom Party) by onetime Minister of Agriculture and former SS officer Anton Reinthaller, the Freedom Party was initially a vehicle for former Nazis to reintegrate into the postwar political system. Seemingly doomed to single-digits in national elections, the FPO evolved into a party with two strands: near-libertarian, small-government party akin to Germany’s small Free Democratic Party, and a second strand of hard-core extreme members with much nostalgia for the German “Third Reich” of the Nazis.
If the Freedom Party had a defining moment, it was in 1986 when the charismatic (and controversial) Jorg Haider took over as its leader. Haider moved the FPO to its present status as a hard-liner on illegal immigration, a booster of a positive redefinition of Austria’s Nazi past, a proponent of more direct democracy such as U.S.-style initiatives, and an advocate of breaking up the state-run TV monopoly.
In 1989, the FPO scored big in state elections in Carinthia and made Haider governor. Haider became a more turbulent public figure with each passing year. In 1999, the FPO reached its high point in a national election (27.7 percent of the vote) and actually placed second in number of parliamentary seats.
The third place OVP agreed to a coalition with the FPO but Haider—who under normal circumstances would have become chancellor—abjured a role in government amid widespread international censure. Haider also stepped aside following the threat of sanctions by the European Union against the Austrian government over the participation of an extreme-right party in a Western EU member-state.
Among Haider’s incendiary actions and statements were to greet former Waffen-SS as “decent comrades” and to praise the Hitler government for a “decent employment policy” in a television interview.
(During an interview with this reporter in December 1994, Haider insisted his remarks about employment were in jest and were subsequently twisted by “the state-owned TV network.” He likened his tough stand on illegal immigration to that of California’s then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who had just won a landslide re-election after embracing an initiative to deny state services to non-citizens).
Haider would finally break with the FPO in 2004 and launch an insurgent party (BZO) of its own. In 2008, he died from injuries in an automobile crash.
Nearly a decade later, much of the agenda sculpted by Haider lives on in the present FPO leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. Under Strache, the old Haider insurgents of the BZO have come back to the FPO and, in an effort to shed its identification with Nazi sympathizers the party has had a major outreach to the extreme right in Israel (although Strache and his party have never been welcomed by the Netanyahu government).
Strache has also studied and praised the American “Tea Party” movement and considers as “good friends” France’s LePen, the Netherlands’ Wilders, and German AfD leader Frauke Petry.
Strache also brought his party closer to Putin. In December, he went to Moscow to sign a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party and vow its opposition to Western sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
A “shoulder-to-shoulder” relationship between Vienna and Moscow, said Strache, would help bring peace to Syria.
Can Sebastian Kurz Stop the Freedom Party?
There is a sidebar in modern Austrian history that works to the advantage of “outsider” candidates and parties: the incestuous nature of the two major parties.
For 44 of the past 72 years, Austria has been governed by a “grand coalition” of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party. For much of that time, the party chieftains divided patronage at the federal, state and local level through a system called “Proporz.”
“It was a recipe for corruption and nepotism,” observed columnist Tony Barber of the Financial Times, “[T]his political establishment looked tired and out of ideas.”
That’s what the voters appeared to be saying. In the parliamentary elections of 2013, the major parties got an aggregate total of 50 percent of all votes cast—down from 79 percent cast for the “Big Two” parties in 2002.
Earlier this year, nominees for the ceremonial office of president of Austria failed to even make the run-off. The top vote-getter in the first round of the race (35.1 percent) was Freedom Party nominee Norbert Hofer, with Alexander van der Bellen of the Green Party placing second with 21.3 percent. (In a subsequent run-off that had to be re-run because of irregularities in the casting of some ballots, van der Bellen narrowly staved off Hofer.)
With days to go before the balloting in the parliamentary elections, the issue of immigration dominates political debate. In 2015, as Germany’s Merkel was admitting refugees from Syria, whose ranks would reach one million, Austria received 90,000 asylum requests. In 2016, that number was 42,000.
Inarguably, this flood of immigrants played into the hands of the Freedom Party. Its longtime charges that a tide of non-European Muslims will drain the welfare system, cost Austrian jobs, and drown the culture clearly resonate more than ever.
Aware of this, the People’s Party turned to a different kind of leader in this election: Sebastian Kurz, foreign minister and former immigration minister, and 30 years old.
Kurz endorses most of Strache’s anti-immigration agenda and is regarded by many commentators as the “soft-spoken Strache” who has moved the OVP considerably to the right of the political spectrum.
Kurz eschews the labels of “left” or “right” and makes statements designed to appeal to different political factions in a populist manner. As immigration minister, he targeted “people smugglers” and tried to reduce economic incentive for refugees to “flood” Austria. He favors U.S.-style tax cuts as well as increased public spending to jump-start Austria’s moribund economy.
But Kurz also eschews the tough, beer-hall rhetoric on immigrants that is a staple of Strache’s rallies. Moreover, he is a strong booster of the European Union, in sharp contrast to the Eurosceptic Freedom Party.
Given the People’s Party’s first-place showing in the polls at this time, the nomination of the “Austrian Macron” appears to have been a shrewd move. But a “Chancellor Kurz” may be forced to form a coalition with the Freedom Party rather than his party’s traditional ally, the Social Democrats headed by outgoing Chancellor Christian Kern.
“In this way, an extreme right-wing party which endorses xenophobic, nativist and anti-EU rhetoric would become part of the Austrian government again – a government which would probably move Austria closer to the ever more authoritarian policies of [Prime Minister] Victor Orban of Hungary,” says social scientist Ruth Wodak, professor at Lancaster University, UK, and author of “The Politics of Fear. What Right Wing Populist Discourses Mean.”
The Freedom Party sharing power after eleven years will be a much-reported story from Austria—and a defining moment in the saga of whether nationalism is here to stay in Europe or is just a passing fad.
John Gizzi is the White House correspondent and chief political columnist for Newsmax. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research..