The small Alpine country could become the next EU nation to have a populist right-wing government.
Despite having lost credibility from all but its most loyal support base after the Ibiza scandal of 2019, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) are as popular now as when they were last in power during the coalition government with the Austrian Peoples Party (OVP) in 2017, according to polls.
In 2020, the right-wing populist FPÖ were polling at a dismal 11%. Today they are the most popular party within the Alpine Republic according to polls. What was once a party struggling to recover from a national scandal is now a major contender for Austria’s chancellorship in the 2024 elections, meaning another European domino could fall into populism and right-wing policy.
During regional elections in January, the FPÖ managed to finish second in the largest state in the country, Lower Austria, forcing the ÖVP to accept a coalition. Several weeks later, it also won seats in the regional government of Salzburg, the wealthiest state outside of Vienna.
“Since Ibiza, it has been the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian war against Ukraine, current economic insecurities, and immigration numbers that have provided fertile soil for a comeback.” Dr. Weisskircher, political scientist at TU Dresden, told Euronews.
“Moreover, the social democrats, currently the largest oppositional party in the Austrian parliament, have performed terribly in the last few years, which were marked by intra-party struggles instead of effective oppositional campaigning”.
Back from the dead
The FPÖ began to call out to their support base again as the truly "free" party during the pandemic when the government began to restrict personal freedoms in the form of lockdowns, vaccinations and other social restrictions.
Back then, the party was still reeling from the infamous Ibiza Scandal of 2019 when then-Vice Chancellor of Austria and FPÖ party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught on video eliciting political favours from Russian business contacts. Strache also signed a partnership agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party in 2016.
Aside from the Venga Boys’ song ‘We’re going to Ibiza’ reaching number one in the Austrian music charts, the scandal sank much of the FPÖ’s prospects for the immediate future. Strache resigned in disgrace and the coalition government was dissolved soon after putting the spotlight firmly on the OVP’s Sebastian Kurz as the unimpeded Chancellor of Austria.
But the global health crisis gave it its first real shot at a comeback. Every weekend there were anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination and pro-freedom marches within the city centre, with Austrian flags being waved fervently from side to side.
Current FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl even decried rumours that he had been secretly inoculated against COVID back in 2021.
The war in Ukraine put further strain on the Austrian public’s relationship with the ruling party, as prices began to inflate, and Austrian ‘neutrality’ was put to the test with sanctions against Russia.
Then after months of an investigation probe into corruption, Kurz resigned the chancellorship, two years after dissolving the coalition government, leaving the ÖVP holding the bag of a bad reputation and public speculation, further driving old supporters into the arms of an old love, the FPÖ.
Flirting too close to the right
The FPÖ’s antics can be seen as both disturbingly distasteful and often misguided.
During the run-up to the October 2020 Viennese mayoral elections, posters of political candidates lined the streets. The one for the FPÖ candidate, Dominik Nepp, hung vertically with the bottom half showing a white woman screaming, hand clutching her face, whilst a menacing looking balaclava-clad, brown-skinned man stood with a knife behind her.
The top half showed a contented white couple, one of them Nepp, with the text reading, “With him, Vienna will be safe again”, and the other candidates will “put us in danger”.
This was but one of many posters across the city, displaying the same attitude toward Muslims, migrants and anything threatening the perceived traditional Austrian concepts of family. Nepp himself referred to the coronavirus as the “asylum seeker virus”.
Members of the FPÖ recently flew to Kabul, the capital of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where women are banned from higher education, to provide "the real picture" of the place. Their actual objective was to secure the release of a right-wing extremist and founder of a political party, now dissolved for it being linked with national socialism.
In July, FPÖ members were found among several hundred other far-rights protestors at a march that proclaimed "white ethnic power" and the goal to "protect Austrianism".
Appealing to 'people who feel confused'
Located along the migratory Balkan route, 2022 saw the country receive the fourth-highest asylum applications in the EU, and for a country of just under nine million, migration has long been a prevalent talking point within Austrian politics.
“They [the FPÖ] appeal to people who feel confused by the complexity of the challenges that we are facing which included corona, Ukraine and economic challenges and these people feel very insecure.” Prof. Martin Kahanec, of the Department of Public Policy at the Central European University in Vienna, said to Euronews to explain why migrants are the ‘easy’ targets for right-wing parties.
“The strategy of these kinds of parties who talk about these challenges present as some kind of threats, including migrants”.
Alexander Pollak, spokesman for the human rights organization SOS Mitmensch said the FPÖ were running a "long-term racist campaign" against Muslims.
As Kickl waltzes towards the Chancellorship, the EU might get worried
In March Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a speech via live video to the Austrian Parliament. As he began to thank Austria for its support to Ukraine all 29 members of the FPÖ within the chamber, including leader Herbert Kickl left leaving placards reading "peace" and "neutrality".
Kickl and party members have been vocal about their opposition towards EU sanctions, and their admiration for leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orbán, with Kickl eager to use Austria’s veto power to block sanctions against Russia if elected as Volkskanzler (Chancellor to the people).
Italy, Poland, Hungary, and now recently Slovakia, have all seen populists take power. Even Germany’s far-right AfD party have seen their popularity increase under German Chancellor Scholz’s government, with Austria providing another potential toothache for Brussels.
Along with several other right-wing parties such as Germany’s AfD, Italy’s The League, and France’s Rassemblement National, the FPÖ is part of the Identity and Democracy Group of the European Parliament making a minority right group stronger within the institution of the EU.
It is unclear whether the FPÖ can hold on to this momentum of popularity ahead of the elections in the autumn of 2023, but as infighting plagues the centrist parties, it's perhaps a safer bet than others.
Although Kickl remains less popular than the party, it seems clear that based on past experiences of two coalition governments in 25 years, the FPÖ will not share power again.