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Populists in Europe (7/8): The new face of Austrian FPÖ

Saturday, 17 May, 2014 - 10:43

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The Freedom Party of Austria or FPÖ aspires to come first nationally in the European elections. For the past 30 years it has been trying to normalize its image by attempting to break from its ideological heritage close to Nazism.

Stop telling the FPÖ it is a neo-Nazi party. Since the 1990s, they have been working to move away from this ideology to turn into a large right-wing populist party. This policy has encountered some degree of success but current party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, successor to Jörg Haider, is having a hard time staying on course.

Constant hesitation

For instance, Heinz-Christian Strache hesitated a while before deciding to cross off MEP Andreas Mölzer from his European electoral roll. Racism is largely tolerated within the FPÖ when it is used to criticize the European Union. Thus Mölzer could say of the EU that it is nothing but “a conglomerate of niggers in complete chaos”.

But when he complained about Austrian footballer David Alaba being jet-black, he jeopardized an entire electoral strategy – when you claim to be on the people’s side, their idols are untouchable. “This hesitation to condemn Mölzer is symptomatic of Strache struggling to distance himself from neo-fascist far-right movements” Viennese political analyst Oliver Gruber argues.

The FPÖ’s grassroots support has always come from the far-right since the party was founded after the war and welcomed modest national-socialist public workers.

In the 1990s, Jörg Haider smoothed out the FPÖ’s most scandalous tendencies in order to turn it into a modern right-wing populist party, taking inspiration from French National Front. The new FPÖ doubled their results, even entering government in 1999. But when in 2005 Jörg Haider left the party, taking some members along with him, the new leader Heinz-Christian Strache had to rely on more extreme elements in order to keep the group afloat.


Campaigns continue to use Jörg Haider’s tried and tested methods. Against the establishment, against Europe and against immigration, the FPÖ acts as the messenger of popular indignation. “People don’t want a multicultural society where they become foreigners in their own country. This has nothing to do with nationalism or racism, it is about the people’s right to self-determination” the party leader claimed in a February press release.

When it comes to his own image, Heinz-Christian Strache alternates between tradition and intense modernity. On the one hand, he wears traditional leather skin pants while giving speeches. On the other hand, he sang a rap version of “Austria First” in a campaign video in 2013. This communication strategy has been rather successful since the FPÖ, although having never reached second place again, still received 20.5% of the votes in last September’s legislative elections.

A difficult party to oppose

“In politics, emotions are often more important than facts”, Oliver Gruber explains. “Respectable Austrian media have always attempted to discredit the FPÖ’s false truths, but this is not what appeals to voters.”

In 2007, when photos of a young Heinz-Christian Strache taking part in neo-Nazi-inspired military training surfaced, the incident had virtually no impact.

The main two Austrian parties, the People’s party and the Social-Democrats, also struggle to fight the FPÖ. It is in their best interest to stay open to a coalition with the latter, so in Parliament the only ones systematically denouncing the FPÖ are members of the Green Party.

Last January Environmentalist MP Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek was put in a difficult position after violence erupted and much damage was caused during the demonstration against the FPÖ’s “corporation ball”. The crowd brought together party representatives, witnesses and victims of the Holocaust and anti-Fascist activists. The environmentalist MP and Green Party spokesperson refused to blame the hooligans.

FOCUS : The popularity of Klagenfurt’s mayor is at its lowest

In Klagenfurt, the regional capital of Carinthia, the FPÖ has a relative majority in the city council with 19 seats out of 45. Mayor Christian Schneider got the attention of the national press when he opposed the inauguration of emergency housing that would have mostly welcomed Romany people.

Even though he was elected with 40.7% of the votes in 2009, Christian Scheider only had a 24% approval rating last March. Political analyst Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerle, who has been living in Carinthia for the past ten years, argues broken promises are the cause of this fall in popularity. “There is still no hockey rink for instance. The FPÖ mayor has achieved nothing more than his predecessors.”

To be fair, the situation was already difficult when he got there, not least because of Jörg Haider who used to be in charge of the whole region. The open air football stadium and concert hall are financial drains for the city. The mayor has also been paying for his own mistakes, including the imbroglio caused by the successive nominations of two different directors of city services.

Last year, Christian Scheider was castigated for heavily exceeding his PR budget. The money was spent, among other things, on communication material representing him as well as donuts and sleep suits for children. Besides, he was under investigation for rescinding a thousand tickets. The investigation also targeted his Christian-Democrat predecessor.