Two years ago, the newly elected president of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) Sebastian Kurz, made a radical change in his party’s alliances. He formed a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).
In many aspects, Kurz’ movement was in line with his political views that are not too distant from those of the FPÖ. In fact, he shares common anti-immigration and Eurosceptic ideas as many others in neighbouring Hungary, Italy and even Bavaria.
The FPÖ had key ministries in the Kurz government, such as the ministries of foreign affairs and interior. Also, the leader Heinz-Christian Strache was appointed Vice-Chancellor.
The far-right party applied a hate and punitive policy against migrants and refugees while it protected continuous racist attacks by extremists. It also supported the introduction of the 12-hour day, a law very important for the Kurz leadership. What is more, FPÖ compromised Austria’s safety with its commitment to form an alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia.
Rather suddenly, however, the government collapsed. It happened in May, immediately following the outbreak of a scandal that involved Strache and his associate Johann Gudenus.
The Ibiza scandal (or Ibiza Gate) provoked a vote of non-confidence against Kurz, the first ever in the country’s history resulting in snap legislative elections to be held on 29 September.
An unpredictable party
The Ibiza scandal was far more important for Austria’s national security than initially considered. The leader of the FPÖ was filmed while offering lucrative investment possibilities to a person who claimed to represent a Russian oligarch. Strache invited the Russians to purchase one of the country’s mass circulation newspapers and help his party take power. In return, he promised state contracts.
But in practice, Strache invited Russia to interfere in Austria’s national policy.
Based on the video, Strache seems to have been pushing a secret agenda: to create a media environment in Austria that is similar to Hungary’s Victor Orban has imposed. This means taking complete control of the media.
FPÖ’s relations with Russia are also a matter of serious concern. While at the interior minister, hard-liner Herbert Kickl attempted to control Austria’s intelligence service (BVT). During this period, important documents were declared lost raising fears to the west that they finished in Russian hands.
Many leading members of FPÖ have been caught on camera with neo-Nazi activists while an anti-Semitic songbook became viral among FPÖ’s members in 2018. Hate speech, racist and xenophobic comments were used daily by the representatives of the party during the period of the coalition government
The scandal provoked internal divisions in the party and for the moment the former candidate for the Austrian presidency Norbert Hofer succeeded Strache. While not different in views by the hardliners, Hofer is more “diplomatic” and “milder” in his expressions.
On the other hand, Strache, who is being investigated for other scandals (including one related to gambling) seems to be abandoned by his former associates.
A party with Nazi roots, FPÖ experienced internal divisions in the past as well. In 2000, the party had been invited by Wolfgang Schuessel as a partner to a coalition government. The alliance between a Christian Democratic party and the far-right provoked heavy reactions in the country and also in the EU.
For two years, weekly demonstrations shook Vienna, while informal sanctions were imposed to the country by the governments of the 14 EU member states.
This resulted in internal divisions in the FPÖ, between the hard liners and the moderates provoked the collapse of the government.
The two national government experiences proved FPÖ totally unreliable as a partner.
Relations with the dark side of the black
While in government, several of FPÖ’s leading members maintained tight relationships with extremist circles as the infamously known Identitarian Movement (IBOe). It is an anti-immigration group which the Christian Democrats warn will be banned after the next elections. IBOe’s leader became known for his relationship with the man accused for the death of 51 people in the New Zealand mosques.
Many leading members of FPÖ have been caught on camera with neo-Nazi activists while an anti-Semitic songbook became viral among FPÖ’s members in 2018.
It should also be noted that hate speech, racist and xenophobic comments were used daily by the representatives of the party during the period of the coalition government.
A general turn to conservative and rightist ideas?
Even though it’s been deemed an unreliable partner for Austria’s government, the FPÖ is quite successful in making coalitions on regional level. In fact, FPÖ has shared local government posts with the ÖVP but also with the Socialist Democrats in Burgenland, Linz and in Carinthia.
The worrying fact is that despite the scandals and the threat to national security, the far-right party lost only a 6% of the votes in 2017
The worrying fact is that despite the scandals and the threat to national security, the far-right party lost only a 6% of the votes in 2017. According to recent polls, FPÖ still enjoys between 20-21% of support while its former partner is on the rise with 36-37%. The Socialists are close to 20% that is quite an electoral collapse. The Greens and the liberal NEOS are closer to 12% and 9% respectively. That means a coalition government will be the only possible solution again.
As Sebastian Kurz said in July, his first choice for a coalition government will again be the FPÖ. The far-right party said this is something it also wants, as long as it gets the interior ministry.
On the other hand of the political spectrum the Socialists are flirting with the far-right as well as being pushed by their conservative wing.
Since both the Conservatives and the Socialists committed a decisive turn adopting the arguments of the far-right, especially as regards asylum policy and immigration, the future for Austrian politics remains rather gloomy.
However, a coalition government that excludes the far-right will be less dangerous for both Austria and the EU. And without any doubt, it would also be less provocative.