Austria’s Sunday general elections ended not with a whimper but with a bang for the populist, far-right Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ): Its support dropped from 26 percent to 16.2 percent as compared with the previous election held in October 2017. The party electorate shrank from 1.3 million voters in 2017 to about 769,000 in 2019, with 258,000 former FPÖ votes switching to the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), headed by former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. More than 235,000 disgruntled FPÖ voters opted not to head to the polls at all on Election Day.
A party that only two years ago looked set to become Austria’s strongest political force has now been relegated to third place, behind the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), which in turn suffered its worst electoral defeat since the end of World War II. Does this mark the beginning of the end of the ascendancy of Austria’s far right? Indeed, could Austria be the “test station” (Versuchsstation), to paraphrase the Austrian writer Karl Kraus, for the long-term decline of Europe’s other populist, far-right parties?
Hardly. The real takeaway from Sunday’s election is the incredible resilience of the FPÖ, which does not bode well for those thinking that the far right will cease to be a factor in European politics in the decades ahead.
The FPÖ promotes itself as the chief protector of Austrian identity and social welfare, both under siege by an influx of foreigners. Once untouchable in mainstream Austrian politics, it formed a government with Kurz’s center-right party after its impressive showing in 2017. Its most recent fall from grace is less a sign of voters turning away from the far right than the result of very specific—and likely temporary—circumstances.
The party’s recent troubles began in May when longtime leader Heinz-Christian Strache was secretly filmed in Ibiza discussing favors with a purported Russian investor. The ensuing corruption scandal (“Ibiza-gate”) led to the end of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government and Strache’s resignation as both vice chancellor of Austria and party head. He remained a party member until this week, when he announced that he would suspend his membership due to an investigation by the authorities into his suspected embezzling of party funds, which purportedly financed Strache and his wife’s lavish lifestyle. The allegations came to light only a few days prior to the election.
The purported misuse of party funds, strongly denied by Strache—“These are all sleazy and made-up lies of a criminal network,” he said in a Facebook post—appears to have been the last straw for the FPÖ leadership. For months after Ibiza-gate, Norbert Hofer, the new party leader, and his second in command, former Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (who has been engulfed in a political scandal of his own involving Austria’s civilian domestic intelligence agency), were undermined by Strache’s inability to stay out of the spotlight, thanks to his frequent Facebook posts railing against the conspirators and secret networks he blames for his downfall, and also vicariously criticizing the new party leadership.
In an effort to dig themselves out of the crisis, Hofer and Kickl have taken on a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde division of labor, with the former assuming the role of conciliatory, moderate statesman advocating for a continuation of the coalition government, and the latter serving up the party’s traditional xenophobic, anti-establishment rhetoric for the far-right base.
It was an uphill battle for multiple reasons. First, far-right parties in Europe historically have been supported by the tabloid press. In Austria, the tabloids, especially the sensationalist Krone Zeitung, continue to have the ability to influence elections with their editorial endorsements. Up until May, the Krone Zeitung was a supporter of the FPÖ. The Ibiza video, however, showed Strache suggesting to a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch that she buy a stake in the newspaper to gain even more favorable campaign coverage for the far right in exchange for lucrative government contracts. Despite Hofer’s attempt to reconcile with the Krone Zeitung, the paper, seeing its editorial independence threatened, turned against the party. (On election night, the Krone Zeitung sent out a five-letter tweet—“Sorry”—under which a screenshot of the Ibiza video was attached with a quote from Strache: “If this outlet suddenly starts pushing us, then we won’t be making 27 but 34 percent.”)
Second, with the loss of Strache, the party also lost its more effective communications tool: his Facebook page. Over the years, the party built this into one of the country’s most influential online platforms, with more than 780,000 subscribers. (In comparison, the Krone Zeitung had a print circulation of about 790,000 in 2018.) Following his ouster in May, Strache refused to relinquish editorial control over the page and continues to treat it as his own personal website. This severely curtailed the FPÖ’s ability to directly communicate with and mobilize its supporters.
Third, as an anti-establishment party that thrived under a perceived ostracization by the Austrian political elite, Hofer’s tactic of openly advocating for joining a new coalition government undercut a crucial component of past FPÖ campaigns: the victimization narrative. The FPÖ, from its inception as a political faction openly representing ex–Nazi Party members, saw itself as the principal victim of the political power-sharing system set up by the center right and center left during most of the postwar era. During its time in government, the FPÖ was busy becoming part of this system by installing its party members and affiliates in senior positions within the federal bureaucracy and state-owned private sector. It could no longer claim to be a victim of the system.
Fourth, external political events were not as favorable in 2019 as they were in 2017. Immigration, or rather the fear thereof, was the top concern of Austrian (and European) voters in the wake of the 2015 European migrant crisis and an uptick in Islamic State–inspired terrorist attacks in Europe. The FPÖ, traditionally standing for a law-and-order approach, tough immigration laws, and anti-Muslim rhetoric, was more easily able to rally its supporters around identity politics. In 2019, no single issue dominated the election as much, although environment and climate protection topped the list with 33 percent. This benefited the Austrian Green Party, which scored its biggest electoral success in its history, claiming over 14 percent of votes, but it was not a winning issue for the FPÖ. Hofer, as former minister for transport, innovation, and technology, advocated for raising the speed limit on the Autobahn, while Strache has repeatedly questioning of the science behind climate change.
Last, the party was deeply damaged by the recent revelations of Strache’s extravagant lifestyle. The FPÖ calls itself the “Social Heimat Party.” Heimat has no English equivalent but is perhaps best translated as homeland—the idyllic world of yore in which Austrianness is defined as abiding by traditional conservative values and supporting for the “kleine mann” (little man) over the business and political elite of the country. To see one of their own engage in perceived elite behavior—a post about the expensive handbags of Strache’s wife, Philippa, seemed to have a struck a particular discordant note—was a bitter pill for many supporters to swallow. The handbags may in fact have done more than Ibiza-gate to achieve the demobilization of large chunks of the FPÖ electorate.
ÖVP strategists were happy to let the party undermine itself. Kurz toned down his rhetoric against the FPÖ following the recent revelations. Like Muhammad Ali in the last two seconds of his legendary fight against George Foreman in 1974, Kurz could passively watch the FPÖ go down without the need for a final knockout punch.
Nonetheless, the future will be brighter for the FPÖ than what many currently suspect.
Sunday’s election showed that the FPÖ has expanded its core support from 10 percent in 2002 to 15 or 16 percent in 2019. Under the leadership of Strache, supported by a core team consisting of members of German nationalist fraternities called Burschenschaften, the once-divided party developed a unified far-right, populist message. Despite the ongoing fights over style and personal behavior, there are no longer ideological differences within the party.
At its heart, the FPÖ remains a populist opposition party that will continue to capture the sentiments of many of those who feel like they have “lost” due to globalization. Promoting its particular brand of Heimat identity politics, the party will keep on playing on the fears of a large segment of Austrian society regarding illegal immigration and its impact on the pensions, as well as the health care systems and job security of Austrians. The party will be helped by a perceived inability of the other parties to address these “politically incorrect” issues. Simplified, populist slogans rather than concrete policy proposals were what made the party appealing in the first place. Consequently, following the dismal results on Sunday, the FPÖ leadership was quick to announce that it will assume its traditional role as an opposition party and not seek a new coalition government with the ÖVP. While this position may possibly change in the coming months, the FPÖ will without a doubt be able to attract many a disgruntled voter unhappy with the current state of affairs once the current scandals blow over.
In addition, the Ibiza-gate scandal has not only hurt the credibility of the FPÖ but all political parties and politicians. It seemed to have confirmed the assumption of a large chunk of the electorate that all politicians engage in corrupt practices and tell lies in one form or the other. The recent election campaign in that regard appears to have further confirmed this notion, as it was largely dominated by an assortment of half-truths and double talk, including disgraceful behavior by both the ÖVP and SPÖ when it came to campaign financing. As a result of the lack of ÖVP-SPÖ transparency, it will be easier for the FPÖ to weather and recoup from any future scandals by pointing out that the whole system is rigged.
The majority of the Austrian political commentariat over the past few days has been advocating for a coalition between the Kurz’s ÖVP and the Green Party. Should Kurz enter into a coalition government with the Greens, he will no longer be able to pursue his center-right populism-lite, including his tough stance on illegal immigration, that attracted FPÖ voters. Consequently, these voters are bound to return to the FPÖ. In turn, should Kurz form a coalition with the SPÖ, reviving the so-called grand coalition that governed Austria for most of the years since 1945, the FPÖ will attack Kurz’s credibility as a reformer.
Should Kurz decide to once again enter into a coalition with the FPÖ—unlikely, but possible—the far right may have more leverage over the future chancellor than one would suspect. Given his rocky tenure so far, Kurz cannot afford another federal election in two years’ time. His desperation to avoid one could be exploited by the FPÖ during negotiations for a new coalition government, while the reduced size of the FPÖ could also guarantee the party plausible deniability in front of voters when it comes to the unpopular policies of the Kurz government.
It is important to understand that current economic and political trends still favor the far right. While it’s perhaps not on the winning side of history in the long run, the FPÖ will continue to represent a sizable bloc of voters in the foreseeable future. Ostracization, as the past decades have shown, is no longer an option, and it will only fuel the party’s growth.
Herein lies the dilemma of the Austrian political establishment: Engaging the party’s voters will be key to guaranteeing democratic stability in the long run. But allowing the FPÖ to reenter the government will almost certainly cause a new political scandal a few months down the road. In that sense, as the journalist Armin Wolf recently noted, Kurz and the political establishment are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.