Despite a series of scandals, Austria's populist Freedom Party has not gone away. On the contrary, the far-right party leading in national polls. Could the FPÖ one day lead the nation?
In Austria, a new coalition between the conservative ÖVP and the populist FPÖ (Freedom Party) emerged after a local election in the Lower Austria region, the most populous after that of the capital Vienna.
Today, at a national level, the FPÖ is the leading political force in the country, according to the latest polls.
This eurosceptic and populist formation hopes to build on its recent success. Could the next Chancellor come from the ranks of the FPÖ, perhaps in the form of its current leader Herbert Kickl?
Euronews spoke with Austrian political scientist Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerle, from the University of Applied Sciences in Carinthia, to learn more about the Austrian party that continues to be reborn after repeated scandals, including the infamous Ibizagate.
“The FPÖ, the Freedom Party, is effectively at the top of all the polls in Austria. This is partly due to the fact that it has acquired the monopoly of the protest votes. This is also due to the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic, and now by inflation,” noted Stainer-Hämmerle, adding that it's also explained by “the weakness of the two other parties which usually govern this country, namely the SPÖ, the Social Democrats, and the ÖVP, the conservative party”, two formations in the grip of “a loss of confidence” according to the specialist.
In Lower Austria, while the election result came out on January 29, discussions and negotiations took two months to give birth to the coalition. It came about despite the fact that the FPÖ never stopped attacking its future coalition partner during the campaign.
“What is interesting is the style of this party during the election campaign,” explained Stainer-Hämmerle, "was that the outgoing ÖVP Governor, Johanna Mikl-Leitner was called a ‘Muslim Mama’ and not only that but she was also pictured with a headscarf. This style is rather crude in political debate. But it has hardly had any consequences, neither for men nor women voters,” she added.
Some policies of the ÖVP/FPÖ coalition in Lower Austria were controversial and provoked numerous demonstrations in Sankt Pölten, the state capital, as well as a wave of discontent across the country.
The main measure of the coalition agreement concerned a fund endowed with 30 million euros to reimburse people who were fined for breaking anti-COVID measures during the pandemic, such as compulsory vaccination. In fact, the FPÖ, consistently attacked what it saw as "all the obstacles to freedoms."
And then there was the “Schnitzel” (Viennese cutlet) bonus, as the Austrian public dubbed it. The nationalist measure consisted of subsidising catering establishments that offered typical Austrian dishes, the obligation to speak German in schoolyards and to fight against gender theory. All came in for strong criticism from more liberal observers.
For Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerle, “these are signals sent out in terms of social policy, against the equality of minorities and women, but also against immigration and integration. For example, it is planned to link housing assistance to a knowledge of German”.
But Stainer-Hämmerle also points out that the scope of the measures is limited since the powers of the Länder (regional) authorities are, after all, “very limited”. Nevertheless, they are themes that the FPÖ has made resonate throughout the country.
Another very important detail, according to Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerlen, is the fact that the leader of the FPÖ in Lower Austria, Udo Landbauer, very often criticised the Russian sanctions during the election campaign, "a theme which did not really have its place in regional policy,” according to the expert.
Policy of the 'scapegoat'
The FPÖ, which sits in the European Parliament within the 'Identity and Democracy' group, alongside other populist parties such as the Liga (Italy), the AFD (Germany) and the National Rally (France), is openly Eurosceptic.
The party subscribes to what has been dubbed the “scapegoat policy” of making the EU “responsible for many ills” according to Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerlen. She adds that when the FPÖ claims that Russian sanctions are the cause of inflation, the party is in fact, once again, targeting the EU.
Stainer-Hämmerlen also points out that the FPÖ also has a 'friendship contract' with Putin's United Russia party, something to which it is keen not to draw too much attention. But in recent months, in the light of the war in Ukraine, the Freedom Party has effectively prevented Volodymyr Zelenskyy's appearance in the Austrian parliament so far, reaffirming Austrian neutrality. Party leader Herbert Kickl also declared on 28 March that "our parliament is not a platform for belligerents."
Towards a real constitutional crisis?
If the FPÖ emerges as the strongest party after the national elections in 2024, there is a chance the next Austrian Chancellor could come from its ranks. Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerlen says the Constitution does not specify that the strongest party appoints the Chancellor, however, she points out it is a "political tradition."
But Stainer-Hämmerlen says the president must also agree, and on this point "Alexander Van der Bellen has always spoken very clearly in being against."
Such a situation, she concludes, would plunge Austria into a real constitutional crisis, "and of course, we hope that this will not happen."