Opinion

Austria Is About to Normalize Its Racist, anti-Semitic Far Right – Again

In Germany, the Nazi-founded extreme right is still taboo for government coalition-building. In Austria, heading to the polls on Sunday, it’s now routine

People's Party top candidate Sebastian Kurz and Freedom Party top candidate Norbert Hofer wait for the start of a TV discussion in Vienna, Austria, September 18, 2019
\ LEONHARD FOEGER/ REUTERS

In 2018, the success of Austria’s far right Freedom Party, under its then-leader Heinz-Christian Strache, was peaking. Once a party non grata, it was invited into a coalition government following the 2017 elections by the "wunderkind" thirtysomething Sebastian Kurz and his Austrian People’s Party, a veteran political party reveling in new branding.

No one thought a coalition which governed for nearly a year and half with almost no publicly contested animosities and frictions would end so soon. But end it did – with a splash.

First there was "IbizaGate," a graft-and corruption scandal surrounding a leaked video showing Strache offering government contracts to what he thought was a Russian oligarch, in exchange for behind-the-scenes support for the Freedom Party (FPO). That destroyed the coalition, forcing Strache to resign and giving the experienced but ever-smiling Norbert Hofer the extreme right party’s leadership.

The break-up with the FPO also opened up a window for the People’s Party elder statesmen to intervene in Kurz's autocratic rule - especially his appointment of staunch FPO members to the critical ministries of defense and interior. Removing FPO-chief ideologue Herbert Kickl from his position as interior minister, was the final death blow to the coalition.

Now, Austria faces national elections again. Is the far right still humiliated, or has it clawed back into electoral favor? Did the scandals even lose it many votes at all?

Ibizagate revealed the FPO’s willingness sell influence and state assets to murky foreign investors if it would serve to bolster its political power. But strikingly enough, this seems not to have had a consequentially severe impact on their electorate.

Even one week after the scandal erupted, the FPO won a big tally of 20 percent in the European Parliament elections (100,000 votes more than during the previous EU elections in 2014, and a loss of just six percent compared to the 2017 national elections ).

The scandal's main protagonist, ex-Vice-Chancellor Strache, won 40,000 personal votes. His campaign was endorsed online through a social media campaign by the leader of Austria's nativist Identitarian movement, Martin Sellner, the European counterpart of America's alt-right, who recently gained notoriety for his financial links to the far right perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque massacre.

Polls suggest that this Sunday, the FPO will receive around 20 percent of the vote. In interviews, the majority of FPO voters express their belief that all politicians are corrupt, and thus Strache and his minions didn't do anything out of the ordinary, or even that he didn't do anything wrong at all.

In terms of the current norms of the political environment, they may have a point.

On the video, Strache and his buddies discussed various scratch-my-back schemes, some of which involved the fictitious Russian oligarch buying up popular media and repivoting it to support the far right party. That was the plan – but Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has actually benefitted from various attempts to manipulate the media.

His friend Rene Benko has acquired 25 percent ownership of Austria's largest tabloid. His party spent double the legal threshold on advertising in the 2017 elections, and also tried to get private funding without reporting it to the state auditor, as required.

Karl Nehammer, secretary general of the Austrian People's party, speaks as an election poster depicting his party's chairman Sebastian Kurz is unveiled on September 24, 2019 in Vienna
AFP

Strache’s disgust for journalists (calling them the "biggest whores") was mirrored in Kurz’ exclusion of investigative journalists from the weekly Falter - for many in the Austrian public, the only reporters willing to challenge the government through their reporting.

His angelic charisma may have been tarnished, but Kurz has run a near-perfect election campaign, especially in social media, and is polling at around 33 percent – only four percent less than his landslide win in 2017.

So where is the rest of the political opposition? As elsewhere in Western Europe, the social democrat vote is declining. Despite being led by a young woman, its first female head, her campaign has lacked focus and energy, and the party is polling around 22 percent, close to estimates for the far right. The social democrats won’t be in a position to define the future of Austria.

The other two opposition parties are only minor players. The neo-liberal NEOS (polling at 9 percent) and the Green Party (12 percent) could potentially become more valuable if Kurz's OVP chooses post-election to build a coalition with them rather than the Freedom Party. That scenario is not impossible, but still hard to imagine.

Austria has never had a coalition government consisting of more than two parties. And their ideological positions are too divergent, especially regarding the central issues of labor and migration; Kurz has adopted the hardline law-and-order position of the extreme right, and the Greens are the exact opposite.

Most observers would tend to think that a remake of the People's Party-Freedom Party coalition is the most probable future scenario.

And why shouldn't Kurz offer a warm handshake to the far right, again? Both parties insist they have worked together amicably for the last 18 months.

Campaign posters featuring the far-right Freedom Party leader Norbert Hofer during the party's Oktoberfest in Vienna on September 19, 2019
AFP

Sure, there may be some awkwardness here and there: Kurz has publicly insisted he won't give far right former interior minister Herbert Kickl (compromised by the Ibizagate scandal for trying to circumvent party financing laws) any ministerial position, the FPO could still bag other central positions of power.

And Kurz will have to weather what have become almost fortnightly exposes of yet more anti-Semitic and racist language by his far right partners.  

Anti-Semitic dog-whistles, in any case, is no great obstacle for Kurz, who has frequently used anti-Semitic codes, targeting particularly an advisor to the social democrats of Israeli origin.

The Freedom Party therefore will have paid no penalty, neither for its corruption scandal, nor for the Islamophobia its government perch has mainstreamed, nor the foundational anti-Semitism of the party itself, founded by a former SS officer. Instead, it is likely to be rewarded.

Austria may be heading next week into a doubling down of the current coalition's agenda - weakening the welfare state, codifying anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant prejudice, strengthening authoritarian tendencies - and the institutionalization of the far right as a legitimate, respectable part of national government in Europe.

Farid Hafez is a Senior Research Scholar at Georgetown University's Bridge Initiative and Senior Scholar at Salzburg University in the Department of Political Science and Sociology. He is the editor of the Islamophobia Studies Yearbook and co-editor of the European Islamophobia Report. Twitter: @ferithafez