Austria experienced two deep political crises during the last two years. The first, known as the IbizaGate, involved the then Vice Chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache. Strache was shown in a video – in the island of Ibiza – offering state contracts to a representative of Vladimir Putin in exchange of political support during the elections.

The FPÖ, founded in 1956 by nationalists, is a xenophobic, anti-immigration and anti-EU party that was a government partner in Sebastian Kurz’s government between 2017 and 2019. Despite the scandal, it enjoys considerable political support.

On 9 October 2021 it was Chancellor Kurz, leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) who left his post as a consequence of a corruption probe, replaced by Alexander Schallenberg. Kurz’ populist style and ultra-conservative domestic policies were widely discussed and it is still debated to what extent does its legacy motivate the new government. Reinhard C. Heinisch is a political scientist, professor at the University of Salzburg and expert in Austrian politics. In an interview to the European Interest Professor Heinisch explained FPÖ’s post-scandal performance, the change of its leadership and its pro-Russia and Covid skepticism views. He also talks about the first post-Kurz period and the power the former Chancellor and leader of the ÖVP holds.

European Interest: The two former coalition partners, the Austrian People’s Party and the FPÖ, were deeply involved in scandals. However, at the Upper Austria regional elections held last September, the ÖVP increased its electoral share while the FPÖ lost a considerable part of its support. How does one explain the ÖVP’s impermeability to scandals and FPO’s weakness?

Reinhard C. Heinisch: Without seeing postelection opinion data, we can only venture an educated guess: 1) local elections are about local issues and the ÖVP government is quite popular and the opposition FPÖ rather weak. 2) Covid skepticism in Upper Austria (UA) runs high, attested be an anti-vaccination party (MFG – People-Freedom-Fundamental Rights) gaining a seat share in the legislature at their first appearance – very rare in Austria. This suggests that the FPÖ opposition on Covid measures (as pursued by the national FPÖ) was not sufficiently radical as handled by the UA state FPÖ whose leader, Manfred Haimbuchner, had a serious ICU (Intensive Care Unit) stay with Covid last year.

So, the FPÖ lost in part because their position was muddled. Covid deniers went to MFG and Covid policy supporters went to the ÖVP. If MFG did not exist, the FPÖ’s result would have been better or as good as last time.

The Kurz scandal at the national level broke after the UA elections, the issues before had not had much resonance with the average public.

FPÖ changed its leadership last summer, replacing the ‘moderate’ Norbert Hofer with a hardliner, Herbert Kickl. Considering that other far-right parties in Europe, mainly the AfD and the Finns, recently elected leaders with harder anti-EU and anti-immigration positions, is this hardening of the political positions a new trend in the far-right environment? Does this represent an end to the period of far-right populism as a coalition partner (Italy, Estonia, Austria)?

Ideologically Hofer and Kickl are not that far apart, Hofer is quite far to the right but comes across more gently – let’s remember he threatened, as presidential candidate, that “Austrians will yet see what an Austrian president is really capable of”, but the difference is on strategy. Hofer represents the office seeking wing of the FPÖ and wants a coalition with the ÖVP, especially Kurz. Kickl is voter-seeking and has a personal grudge against Kurz. Kickl wants to build the FPÖ strength and voter base by presenting a more radical posture and especially gain voters among the large reservoir of anti-vaccination segments (about 35% versus the FPÖ’s 20% vote share).

Generally, radical right parties oscillate between office and voter seeking and undergo periodic periods of mainstreaming which gets them into office, then they eventually lose some support and radicalize again to gain it back – the extent to which this happens is dictated by the competition and local circumstances

Hofer wears masks in the legislature, Kickl often does not. This makes the FPÖ ineligible as coalition partner to all other parties. Generally, radical right parties oscillate between office and voter seeking and undergo periodic periods of mainstreaming which gets them into office, then they eventually lose some support and radicalize again to gain it back – the extent to which this happens is dictated by the competition and local circumstances.

Herbert Kickl, the new leader of FPÖ, shares anti-EU, anti-Islam and anti-immigration views while also supporting the COVID-19 deniers. In an interview in 2019, you argued that he represents the values of the party. Considering that FPÖ is an old party existing since 1956, what is its constituency? Does it have a specific social or cultural base?

The FPÖ is a classical populist radical right party – what does this mean? It is populist by claiming that corrupt elites are running the country and that change is urgently necessary to depose these elites and restore the power of the good/common people. The elites de jour are the Covid scientists, experts, technocrats that tell ordinary people how they should live, force them to get vaccinated and otherwise restrict their lives. The FPÖ is radical right-wing in that it is nativist (the interest of the native population outweighs all other concerns), authoritarian (extreme law and order orientation), and illiberal (the will of “the” people is not to be constrained by liberal institutions such as rule of law, constitutions, international agreements, the EU, media, checks and balances etc.). The Ibiza-gate scandal was another demonstration of the pro-Russian positions of FPÖ. However, virtually all European far-right parties hold similar pro-Russian attitudes. But, in Austria’s case, the issue was more serious.

The FPÖ tried to get the Russians involved in the political institutions of the Austrian Republic. Why are the FPÖ, in particular, and the far-right parties, in general, aligned with Russia’s interests in Europe?

I would suggest that Austrians and all Austrian parties have an affinity for Russia, to the extent that the radical right shares a pro-Russian tendency, the FPÖ as an Austrian party does so even more. The radical right sees in Russia not only financial backing, media support (RT) and potential cyber support but they also like the illiberal tendencies (anti-EU, anti-US, anti-gay rights etc.) of Putin’s Russia. In Austria the sympathy for Russia rests also on the great commercial interests of Austrian business given the extent of Austrian economic relationship with Russia, not to mention rampant anti-Americanism, generally poor liberalism, and fear of a powerful neighbour that supplies most of the country’s energy.

The ÖVP’s dilemma is that they are completely stuck – they can’t continue either with or without Kurz. He is still very powerful as his network has taken over important positions in the party and as he could still break away from the ÖVP and mortally destroy the party

The FPÖ has xenophobic, racist and anti-EU positions. However, the ÖVP under Sebastian Kurz embraced its rhetoric, especially during the refugee crisis. In addition, during its time in government, authoritarian tendencies were also identified. What remains in the Austrian politics of the Kurz policies at the local, national, and international levels?

We don’t know yet. The ÖVP’s dilemma is that they are completely stuck – they can’t continue either with or without Kurz. He is still very powerful as his network has taken over important positions in the party and as he could still break away from the ÖVP and mortally destroy the party (he successfully blackmailed them in 2017). He has also made sure that there is no one in his mold who could credibly take over – all his surrogates are weak and loyal. The ÖVP’s best bet is to soldier on and muddle through, hoping that the new chancellor Schallenberg will outgrow his mentor Kurz and do well enough long enough that he could serve as top candidate in the next elections, possibly next year or in 2 years at the latest. He could represent Kurz’s anti-immigrant positions (he has done this so far) but ease up on the EU skepticism and Kurz’s shenanigans (hoisting the Israeli flag, claiming to produce the sputnik vaccine, making extremely controversial statements, etc.) that could establish Schallenberg as a more serious statesmanlike figure that is still conservative enough to protect the right flank of the ÖVP.