Austrias far-right is poised to take power after Russia scandal
In Austria, the far-right has emerged from a Russia scandal largely intact and is poised to perform well in snap elections on Sunday just four months after the country’s government collapsed.
The 2015 migrant crisis and deep anti-immigrant sentiment have empowered far-right parties across Europe. In Austria, the wave of nationalism brought the far-right into a governing coalition with the conservatives in 2017.
The coalition between the conservative party and the far-right cemented former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s popularity and the far right’s place in mainstream Austrian politics, while deepening polarization.
Like populist parties across Europe, Austria’s far-right is characterized by its opposition to immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries, and its affinity for Russia.
“The Middle European values we have and we built in the last few hundred years and the values the people from the Middle Eastern regions bring are not very compatible,” one young far-right voter told Insider.
The far-right in Austria appears to be made of teflon for many of the same reasons similar parties across Europe appear impervious to scandal.
Among these is voters’ fear that Kurz will move the country leftward if the Freedom Party doesn’t remain strong.
VIENNA, Austria — It’s been just over four months since a leaked video involving Austria’s far-right vice chancellor and an actor playing a Russian heiress took down the government.
But for many Austrians, the scandal won’t factor into their vote in Sunday’s snap elections.
Maximilian Baumann, a 19-year-old first-year student at the University of Vienna, said he was “disappointed” that then-vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on video in 2017 attempting to barter lucrative government contracts for campaign support from a Russian on the Spanish island of Ibiza.
But just a week after the video became public last May, Baumann voted for Strache’s far-right Freedom Party in the European Parliament elections.
“Of course it was a big scandal and I don’t want to play this down,” he told Insider at a Freedom Party campaign rally in Traisen, Austria. But he added, “I still have faith in the party and what the party stands for is still the same.”
The Austrian government collapsed days after “Ibizagate,” and 17 months after the formation of a coalition government comprised of then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s center-right People’s Party and the Freedom Party.
Kurz, Austria’s 33-year-old political wunderkind, walked a fine line between mainstream conservatism and right-wing populism. On the one hand, he embraced extremist, anti-immigrant elements, while on the other he appeased his conservative base with a tax-cutting, pro-EU agenda.
Strache resigned from the vice chancellorship in the wake of the video scandal, while insisting his recorded comments were simply drunken posturing and that he’d been the target of a “political assassination.”
Kurz called for snap elections and fired far-right interior minister Herbert Kickl, which triggered the resignation of the remaining FPÖ ministers. Kurz was then himself ousted in a vote of no confidence.
But voters like Baumann are the reason a new coalition government between Kurz’s party and the Freedom Party, also known by its German initials FPÖ, is the most likely outcome following Sunday’s elections.
“My best guess is we will see many dramas and many talks and negotiations, but in the end it will be clear that there will only be one option,” Paul Schmidt, secretary general of the Austrian Society for European Politics, told Insider.
How Austria’s far-right became mainstream
Austria has one of the oldest and most well-established far-right populist parties in Europe.
After three decades on the margins following its founding in 1956 by former Nazi SS officers, the Freedom Party picked up steam in the mid-1980s when it zeroed-in on a nationalist, anti-migrant agenda. In 2000, it became the first party with Nazi origins to enter a European government since World War II.
Amid plentiful scandal and European sanctions, support for the Freedom Party dropped off, but its fortunes changed in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis.
Kurz became the world’s youngest democratic head of state in 2017 by remaking his establishment conservative party in the Freedom Party’s image — in particular by embracing the far-right’s virulently anti-immigrant positions.
Instead of trying to beat the far-right, Kurz joined it.
“He’s extremely strategic and flexible in terms of ideological preferences,” Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik, a political scientist at the University of Vienna, told Insider of Kurz. “The [People’s Party] views itself as a governing party and it has demonstrated huge ideological flexibility in maximizing its governing impact and its presence in government.”
On its face, the coalition government was unified and worked effectively together on policy. But as the Freedom Party was consistently dogged by scandal, Kurz either delivered a muted response or stayed quiet, earning him the nickname “the silent chancellor.” Since 2017, incidents of far-right extremism and anti-Semitism have risen in Austria.
But buoyed by a booming economy, the governing coalition was broadly popular before its collapse.
Kurz also had powerful allies across the Atlantic. Richard Grenell, Trump’s ambassador to Germany, has called him a “rockstar.” Last February, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, invited Kurz to their home during his visit to Washington to meet the president.
Some believed Kurz’s experiment with the Freedom Party would force the far-right to moderate some of its positions and shun its most extremist elements. Kurz himself has argued that bringing the far-right into the fold would help fight political polarization.
Instead, the coalition cemented both Kurz’s popularity and the Freedom Party’s place in mainstream Austrian politics, while deepening polarization.
Reinhard Heinisch, a professor of comparative Austrian politics at the University of Salzburg, argued that Kurz has little choice but to continue moving to the right to placate the FPÖ’s supporters. And it puts Kurz in the strategically difficult position of “playing second fiddle” to the far-right, which will likely only continue its right-ward march.
“If you embrace the far-right positions, in the end it legitimizes those positions and it makes them more acceptable,” Heinisch said. “In the future, when it’s no longer Kurz, these voters are going to go to whomever is going to offer something similar and that could very well be the far-right at that point.”
“Ibizagate” also drew attention to the far-right’s well-documented affinity for Russia. The Freedom Party signed a formal cooperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in 2016 and has long opposed European sanctions on Russia.
And in early 2018, Kickl, then the interior minister, ordered raids on Austria’s domestic intelligence agency. The move was widely perceived as an attempt to stymie the government’s investigations into far-right extremists with ties to the FPÖ. And nine of the ten raids have been declared illegal by Austrian courts.
Kickl is widely perceived as the mastermind behind the Freedom Party’s rise, and his firing by Kurz last May provoked the remaining FPÖ ministers to resign their posts.
Pan-European populism fueled by anti-immigrant fervor
As a pioneer of post-War European populism, the Freedom Party is something of a model for similar burgeoning movements across the continent.
Austria is part of a pan-European right-wing alliance spearheaded by Italy’s former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-migrant League party. The far-right parties are united by their parallel efforts to staunch the flow of immigrants across their borders.
In Austria, the government has proposed and implemented a series of anti-migrant and refugee policies even as the number of migrants crossing the country’s border has plummetted over the last few years. The Freedom Party is calling for a ban on immigrants from Muslim countries.
There is a widespread belief among right-wing and conservative Austrians that refugees are exploiting the country’s resources while failing to assimilate.
“We have to work a lot for our money and the refugees they especially come here to europe to the rich countries like Austria and Germany because they have a good life here,” Christian Mayer, a 32-year-old FPÖ supporter who works at a pipe manufacturing factory west of Vienna. “You must give something, then you can take.”
Mayer attended the Kickl rally in Traisen with his girlfriend, Jenalyn Valdueza, who is from the Philippines, and their four-year-old son. Valdueza moved to Austria five years ago after meeting Mayer in Thailand, but said she still struggles to learn German and that it can be hard to live in Austria as an immigrant.
Peter, an older FPO supporter and local party official who withheld his last name over privacy concerns, said the Austrian government and mainstream media have “tried to sell” migrants as more educated and upwardly mobile than they are.
“Meanwhile we know it’s … absolutely impossible to integrate most of them,” he said. “I think the main problem with people with leftist positions is they simply close their eyes. They don’t want to see what really happens.”
Baumann, the 19-year-old university student, argued that Muslim immigrants’ deeply-held religious beliefs are in tension with Austria’s more secular culture and politics. He compared Austria’s Muslim communities to ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel and evangelical Christians in the US and suggested these groups undermine the separation of church and state.
“The Middle European values we have and we built in the last few hundred years and the values the people from the Middle Eastern regions bring are not very compatible,” said Baumann, who attended the Kickl event in Traisen with his father, also an FPÖ voter. “I’m a big fan of the Muslim culture, as well as my father, we go to Muslim countries like Morocco and we love it there — it’s amazing. But it’s not very compatible.”
Like many on the far-right, Baumann cites higher birth rates among Austria’s Muslim immigrant communities than among among its native-born population, which he argued will be a “huge problem” in the future.
This explicitly anti-Muslim sentiment is embedded in the Freedom Party’s DNA. The party’s long-time former leader and Nazi sympathizer, Jörg Haider, wrote in his 1993 book that “the societal foundations of Islam are diametrically opposed to our Western values.” Kurz is pushing to prohibit young Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in school. He does, however, support keeping Christian crosses in classrooms.
In an indication of how the far-right’s anti-immigrant stances have moved the conversation in Europe, the European Commission in September re-named the position responsible for migration policy to “vice president for protecting our European way of life.” The re-naming sparked widespread outrage, but the EU’s new president hasn’t backed down.
Germany’s conservative political establishment has so far shunned the AfD. Instead, Chancellor Angela Merkel has moved her center-right party — in coalition with the Social Democrats — to the left. Critics point to Merkel’s decision to allow more than a million refugees into the country in 2015 as a reason for the right-wing backlash.
There’s an ongoing debate over how the political establishment should handle the far-right across Europe. Germany and Austria offer case studies in divergent approaches. While Kurz and Merkel represent similar center-right parties, they’ve repeatedly clashed over immigration policy.
“Austria and Germany are very similar countries, very similar cultures, very similar party systems,” Heinisch said. “But in Germany the chancellor moved to the left and took votes away from the Social Democrats. In Austria, the same party, same leader, moved to the right and took votes away from the far-right. So the question is: Who will succeed, which of the two strategies [will succeed]?”
The teflon far-right
When the Ibiza video landed in May, the coalition government braced itself for backlash.
But just a week later, the Freedom Party emerged relatively unscathed from the European Union elections, winning 17% of Austrians’ vote — a nine percentage point drop from the 2017 federal elections, and just a two percentage point dip from the 2014 EU elections.
Strache himself won a seat in the EU parliament, but turned down the position, although his wife, the FPÖ’s 32-year-old animal welfare officer, is currently running for a seat in parliament.
Even some far-right supporters are surprised by how little the scandal has hurt the party. Leading up to Sunday’s election, opinion polling had the FPÖ back up to about 20%, neck and neck with the Social Democrats.
“I thought this event will break down the party, but it doesn’t matter,” Zimmer Hartmut, a 75-year-old FPÖ supporter and retired veterinarian, told Insider at the Traisen rally. He added, “This was an individual mistake and could happen in all the parties, not just this one.”
The Freedom Party has been unified and disciplined in its public messaging. Following the Ibiza scandal, it was crystal clear on two points: Ibizagate was an aberration, and the party’s agenda will remain unchanged.
“It could’ve been much worse if they had erupted in public infighting and if all the intra-party conflict that probably was there would’ve become visible to the public,” Ennser-Jedenastik said.
The party is also aided by a strong presence on social media. Strache has almost 800,000 Facebook followers, equivalent to about 10% of Austria’s population, many of whom are skeptical of the “mainstream” media.
The party’s opponents say the far-right’s teflon quality is, in part, the result of voters’ rejection of fact.
“I think it’s something like what you have in the US: People don’t vote based on facts, but based on what they’re feeling,” Andrea Brunner, deputy secretary general of Austria’s Social Democratic party, told Insider.
Strache and fellow Freedom Party leaders have also done their best to distract from the scandal.
“What was spoken there was awful and a big catastrophe, but you have to ask the question: Who is doing this? Who is making videos of politicians in Austria?” Christian Hafenecker, a secretary-general of the FPÖ, told Insider of “Ibizagate.” He added, “[Strache] was drunk and he said something, but he didn’t [follow through].”
Some political scientists argue that populist politicians from the US to Poland are able to survive significant corruption scandals because their supporters have adopted a deeply cynical approach to politics. All political parties are corrupt, so the rules don’t matter.
Slawomir Sierakowski, a Polish sociologist and expert on European populism, argues that politicians like Strache are legitimized by controversy, which is viewed by their supporters as evidence they’re bravely fighting for the people.
“By antagonizing elites, the media, foreign institutions (above all European), and the judiciary, and by violating norms with abandon, they have claimed the mantle of ‘authenticity,'” Sierakowski wrote recently.
He told Insider, “There’s a moral cost to it and people accept it. It’s not irrational, it’s a choice.”
And far-right voters are being told they have no choice but to continue supporting the Freedom Party if they want to keep Austria on a conservative path.
FPÖ campaign posters now pragmatically proclaim: “Without us, Kurz will move to the left.”
“The simple answer is, the voters have nowhere else to go,” Heinisch said. “If you stay home then you increase the chances that Kurz … might have to do a coalition with the left.”
Hafenecker, the FPÖ secretary-general, warned that if Kurz attempts to form a new government with the left, it’ll be doomed.
“If Kurz is going to make a middle-left coalition it’s his problem and his fault and we’ll see where the People’s Party will be in one year,” he told Insider.
Heinisch thinks the party’s base will stick with it as long as it doesn’t compromise its agenda in a new coalition with the conservatives.
“The main damage the Freedom Party could do to itself is if they really abandon their core principles,” he said. “Other than that [FPÖ supporters] are, like Trump voters, very much with the Freedom Party, it’s very tribal, they stick with the party, they don’t believe the stuff being reported about them, and they’re either low-information voters or they’re voters who simply don’t care because they don’t have any alternative.”
Eliza Relman is reporting from Europe on an Arthur F. Burns fellowship through the International Center for Journalists.