Austria’s New Right

Austria’s far-right Freedom Party has deployed populist rhetoric to swell its base. Now the party is eyeing state power.

Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the far-right Freedom Party, speaks at a rally in October 2015. The Apex Archive / Flickr

It was a bizarre sight: when the initial results of Vienna’s regional elections were announced on October 11, Austrian national television cut to the Viennese headquarters of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) bursting with jubilation. Party functionaries, candidates, and dignitaries could be seen jumping from their chairs, cheering, and embracing.

But the SPÖ wasn’t celebrating a victory. They were elated because the results weren’t as bad as they’d expected. With 39 percent of the vote, they had still slipped almost five percentage points from the previous election.

Meanwhile, the party of the extreme right, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), gained more than 5 percent and cracked the 30 percent mark for the first time in Austria’s capital city.

This juxtaposition —SPÖ party members cheering even as the extreme right picks up electoral steam — encapsulates the current political climate in the Republic of Austria. Since the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008, the ascent of the right-wing FPÖ has seemed almost unstoppable.

Under Heinz-Christian (H. C.) Strache, the party’s leader since 2005, the FPÖ has managed to win support in every local, regional, and national contest. Just two weeks before the elections in Vienna, the FPÖ doubled their share of votes in the province of Upper Austria — from 15 to 30 percent — finishing well ahead of the Social Democrats, who captured just over 18 percent.

The situation has left politicians, journalists, and commentators at home and abroad puzzled: how could it come to this?

The dominant narrative attributes the far right’s rise to one factor: the so-called refugee crisis. Since the beginning of summer, the issue has dominated public discourse like no other, and the far right has been quick to exploit it.

While the government sent conflicting signals, oscillating between toughness and compassion, the FPÖ’s position was as clear as it was uncompromising: the purported wave of immigration needed to be stopped and Austrian borders protected.

The FPÖ deployed a massive propaganda campaign against migrants and asylum seekers, spreading false rumors that refugees were really Islamist infiltrators, cowards, criminals, sex offenders, or just economic migrants (rather than political refugees) stealing Austrian jobs.

This clearly helped the FPÖ in the most recent elections. But to blame the FPÖ’s success on migrants and refugees — as representatives of both SPÖ and ÖVP did after the far right’s triumph in Upper Austria — is not just short sighted. It is also an exercise in avoiding blame.

A year ago — well before most of the current refugees arrived in Austria — polls in Upper Austria estimated the FPÖ’s support at around 30 percent. Earlier this year, before the refugee situation dominated headlines, elections in the southern province of Styria saw the FPÖ skyrocket from 10.7 to 28.8 percent, finishing just 2.5 percent behind the Social Democrats.

And perhaps most importantly, at the federal level the FPÖ has led comfortably in every poll since April; the most recent surveys put them at 33 percent — a “comfortable ten point lead” over both the SPÖ and the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP).

The idea that the FPÖ is merely profiting from anxiety about migration therefore conveniently overlooks the far right’s strength before the refugee crisis.

Little wonder then that Strache already publicly pictures himself as the next Austrian head of government, or Bundeskanzler. His party is the driving force in Austrian politics, setting the political agenda, dominating media coverage, and spinning its stories through the tabloid press and social media.

In fact, the FPÖ is Western Europe’s most successful far-right party today and could become the first to lead a government on this side of the former Iron Curtain — which would cause reverberations well beyond the country’s borders.

A number of other far-right parties — such as France’s National Front, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (PVV), Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, and Italy’s Lega Nord — are looking at Austria as a potential beachhead for a European right-wing reconquista, building alliances for a new authoritarian bloc in the European Union that would also include Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and the new right-wing government in Poland.

In the international media, the growth of the FPÖ is frequently portrayed as the return of Austria’s dark past. The New York Times, for instance, has written that the FPÖ’s ascent “lengthens the shadow of the Nazi era.” This may seem appropriate considering the country that gave the world Adolf Hitler was part of the Third Reich from 1938 to 1945 (yet claimed, after its liberation by the Allied Forces, that it had been the first victim of the Nazis’ aggression).

But while such framing might make sense for journalists leveraging Godwin’s law for clicks and shares — and for many others who continue to analyze fascism and right-wing populism according to the rubrics of the first half of the twentieth century — thinking about the FPÖ in these terms tends to obscure rather than illuminate the dynamics at work.

Although the FPÖ has always been a focal point for post-1945 neofascist milieus and has political and organizational roots in the Nazi project, it isn’t a remake of 1930s fascism. Its success today is based on the adoption of new strategies suited for the peculiarities of contemporary European capitalism.

Portraying the far right, as some liberals in Austria like to do, as hopelessly hidebound underestimates its ability to (post)modernize, and tends to culturalize the Austrian far right as exceptional instead of recognizing its paradigmatic role in today’s Europe.

For many Austrians, the present does have a déjà vu quality to it, but one that recalls a moment much more recent than the 1930s: the late 1990s, when the FPÖ enjoyed victory after victory under its current leader’s predecessor, Jörg Haider. In 2000, this winning streak led the Freedom Party into government, where they formed a right-wing coalition with the People’s Party that would last for seven years.

So while we are quite clearly not back in the 1930s, are we perhaps witnessing a gruesome nineties revival, with the far right on the cusp of returning to government office? Yes and no.

The mushrooming influence of the FPÖ should indeed be understood as the comeback of a political project that Haider pioneered and perfected in the 1990s. But this is not just tragedy returning as farce. The rise of the far right today is taking place under vastly different circumstances, domestically and globally, which makes the situation potentially more dangerous than at the turn of the millennium.

The FPÖ’s Rise

In 1986, Jörg Haider took over the FPÖ in a party coup. Within a decade, he had installed a new generation of loyal party cadre, introduced a new style of right-wing politics in Austria, transformed its social base and political profile, and led it to unforeseeable success.

Before Haider, the FPÖ was a minor if not insignificant parliamentary player, representing aging, pan-Germanist, nationalist, and often Nazi-nostalgic segments of the Austrian bourgeoisie.

But by the 1980s, with demography and the zeitgeist taking their toll on the party of old-school pan-Germanism, the party was quickly losing voters and was riven by factional disputes between the old guard of pan-Germanist Herrenmenschen and a more youthful, nationalist, pro-business faction called the “national-liberals” looking to break with the party’s Nazi past.

Haider, a young hopeful in the party’s parliamentary group, made use of these turbulences and managed to win a crucial vote for the party chairmanship against his “national-liberal” adversary. Possessing charisma and dynamism, he represented a new start for many party members — without having to openly break with their ideological principles.

Haider came from an old Nazi family (both his parents were early members of the National Socialist Party), had been involved with right-wing Burschenschaften (student fraternities), and was known for his staunch far-right positions as the FPÖ youth organization’s leader. But he knew that for the party’s positions to become relevant in the Austrian political system, it would need to shake off its image as old-fashioned and nostalgic for the Nazi era.

This reorientation coincided with a crisis of Austria’s postwar economic model. Similar to developments elsewhere, masses of Austrian workers and members of the middle classes were confronted with the grim fact that the promises of the so-called postwar economic miracle — growing affluence and lasting economic prosperity for future generations — were no longer credible.

And the traditional representatives of their political and economic interests — the Social Democrats and the Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) — were not only incapable of bringing such conditions back, but were actively involved in their destruction. After all, the SPÖ had been leading the federal government since 1970.

Under Haider, the new FPÖ responded to the economic malaise by repositioning itself as the party of the man on the street, promising to restore both prosperity and traditional values — family, work, and national pride. Increasingly focused on a genuinely Austrian, as opposed to German, identity, the party that had denied the existence of such a thing a couple of years prior was now proclaiming itself the true representative of “real Austrians.”

The FPÖ’s 1990s rise is often framed as the emergence of a new worker’s party, eating away the SPÖ’s social base and articulating the interests of those sections of society most hurt by globalizing neoliberal capitalism.

However, this is only one side of the story. Between 1983 and 1999, the FPÖ did acquire 507,000 votes from the Social Democrats. But it also wrested 527,000 from the Conservatives, the traditional representatives of the Austrian bourgeoisie and rural populations in the Alpine regions.

In other words, Haider’s FPÖ constructed a genuine cross-class alliance, articulating the interests of various social groups that often shared just one thing: a deep dissatisfaction with the political status quo.

Naturally, the party’s program was deeply contradictory. The FPÖ cast itself as the party of the common people, yet was fiercely hostile to trade unions, public spending, and the welfare state. It increasingly enjoyed the support of significant sections of Austrian capital, including corporations dependent on the world market, but opposed on national sovereignty grounds the European economic integration that would benefit these capitalists.

What held the competing interests together was a textbook populist strategy. Haider’s party constructed a vertical antagonism: we, the people, versus the old elites, represented by the eternal coalition of “red” (SPÖ) and “black” (ÖVP); second, it set “the people” against “welfare scroungers,” foreigners, asylum seekers, and other figures.

Racism, often directed against the so-called Gastarbeiter and their families — guest workers recruited mainly from Turkey and Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s — played a key role in the FPÖ’s mobilizations. Mostly concentrated in poor urban areas, competing for jobs in low or unskilled industries and services, and often deprived of basic political rights because of restrictive citizenship laws, guest workers became the perfect scapegoat.

In defining populist antagonism in a cultural, or moral, register, the FPÖ was able to restructure the political terrain in ways favoring strong-arm, authoritarian solutions over democratic deliberation. FPÖ campaigns did not focus on concrete policies, programs, or demands, but on portraying an Austria in decay — a country endangered by culturally incompatible migrants, decadent political elites, and out-of-touch EU bureaucrats governing from far-away Brussels.

The country needed salvation; the party offered a savior.

Learning From Mistakes

The popularity of the FPÖ peaked in the 1999 elections, after which it was able to build a right-wing coalition government. Even though it finished in third place, the ÖVP worked out a deal with the FPÖ that secured the first conservative Bundeskanzler in thirty years and gave the far right six out of eleven ministerial posts.

In government, the FPÖ was able to deliver on its law-and-order promises, introducing restrictive citizenship and asylum laws and expanding police forces’ authority. But in social and economic terms, the contradictions the FPÖ had concealed with racist populism while in opposition soon exploded in the party’s face.

It quickly became obvious that, despite the FPÖ’s social rhetoric over the past decade, this was a party of big capital. With its new coalition partner, the Conservatives were able to push through an agenda of accelerated neoliberalization, breaking the institutions of “social partnership” and sidelining the trade unions.

This included pension reforms that effectively opened up the market for retirement funds for international banks and insurance companies; the introduction of fees for universities and hospitals; and the liberalization and privatization of energy, telecommunications, housing, and banking sectors.

These reforms were often accompanied by obscene corruption, as Austrians would find out many years later when the judiciary started investigating the senior members of government and lobbyists close to the FPÖ in cases of bribery, embezzlement, money laundering, and illegal kickbacks. Holding positions of power and influence while billions of euros worth of assets were put on the market, many of the FPÖ’s former “anti-establishment” figures made a fortune (and sometimes ended up in court or in jail).

Opposition to the neoliberalization of Austria’s domestic economy remained ineffective. Neither progressive NGOs and civil society protesting against the FPÖ’s racism, nor students’ protests against the introduction of student fees, and not even the mighty trade union federation (ÖGB) mobilizing its members against the pension reform in 2003 — which included the first major strike action, if only for a day, since 1955 — were able to stop the government’s reform drive.

Unable to square its national-social rhetoric with its politics of neoliberal deregulation, the FPÖ split in 2005. A smaller, right-wing neoliberal faction (the now deceased BZÖ — “Alliance for the Future of Austria”) remained in government until 2007.

The FPÖ receded into opposition and, after some years of turbulence in which it lost up to two-thirds of its voters, managed to resurface as a new-old party of the “common people” under its new leader, Heinz-Christian Strache.

Arguably, the greatest trick the FPÖ ever pulled was convincing its potential electorate that it hadn’t existed as a governmental party before 2005.

To a large extent, the reformation of the FPÖ was based on a return to Haider’s success story. H. C. Strache and FPÖ Secretary General Herbert Kickl — the party’s man behind the scenes and Jörg Haider’s former speechwriter — managed to make their dissociation with the FPÖ’s governmental past plausible by openly and drastically breaking with the personnel responsible for the party’s role and record in government.

This enabled them to return to the recipe that led them to victory before. If anything, they strengthened the populist character of the party even more, branding the FPÖ as soziale Heimatpartei, a nativist slogan only roughly translatable as “social homeland party.” Since then, the FPÖ has criticized the European Union’s handling of the eurozone crisis, and campaigned for higher wages and pensions and against high rents.

Sometimes, it’s even been difficult for left-wingers to disagree with some of their positions, such as their opposition to the bank bailouts, their attacks on the “neoliberal” and “corporate” European Union, and their assertion that “rescue packages” for Greek debt servicing in fact benefitted German and French financial corporations. “Unser Geld für unsere Leut” — “Our money for our people” — became one of their more popular slogans.

In an environment in which support for European crisis management has been almost unequivocal among the Austrian political establishment, this has put them in a comfortable position to reestablish their populism. The operative term in their popular slogan, of course, is “our.” Our money, our people — they’ve made it abundantly clear who is, and isn’t, included in this pronoun.

This electoral strategy has paid off in recent elections. In Vienna, the party made its biggest gains in traditional working-class areas — even in the SPÖ’s strongholds, the municipal housing projects that have been the pride of Austrian Social Democracy ever since the glory days of “Red Vienna” in the 1920s.

The New and the Old

However, it would be a mistake to see the resurgence of the FPÖ’s right-wing populism as a simple “back-to-the-roots” operation. While the party under Strache revived the Haiderian formula (especially after Jörg Haider’s death in 2008, which enabled them to represent themselves as legitimate heirs of Haider’s legacy), conditions for the party changed both objectively and subjectively, in numerous respects.

First, the battles Strache and his clique had to win inside the FPÖ to refocus the party after its disastrous government participation involved the strengthening of the far right within the far right.

Strache himself has past intimacies with neo-fascist individuals and groups, but to win the inner-party conflicts, he has had to draw on the networks of Burschenschaften, right-wing student fraternities who had traditionally served as the ideological backbone of the extreme right wing inside and outside the FPÖ. While Haider surrounds himself with a coterie of young male careerists, Strache relies on a band of steadfast ideologues and organizers.

This inner-party shift toward the far-right has also coincided with a process of normalization of the FPÖ in the wider political landscape. When the party entered government in 2000, it was met with fierce protests both at home and abroad. Just to be sworn in, the new government had to use underground tunnels to reach the president’s office in Vienna, as tens of thousands were demonstrating and blocking the entrances. For more than two years, protesters against the right-wing government held demonstrations in Vienna every week.

Meanwhile, Austria’s EU partners reduced diplomatic and bilateral relations with Austria, in protest of the inclusion of an openly racist party in a national government of a EU member state. The widely shared conviction — if only to keep up a liberal façade —was that this was a political force challenging the antifascist consensus in Europe.

A decade later, that consensus has evaporated; the cordon sanitaire around the far right, if there ever was one, is gone both on the European and the domestic scale. In Austria, the FPÖ is now part of two regional governments: in Upper Austria, in a new coalition with the conservative ÖVP; and in the eastern region of Burgenland, where it governs as a junior partner of the SPÖ.

The latter coalition, which was established in June, is the first time Social Democrats — who had previously ruled out any coalition with the FPÖ— have teamed up with the far right. While this sparked some protest among left segments of the SPÖ and its youth organizations, the SPÖ’s message was clear: the FPÖ had to be treated as a democratically legitimated force.

The FPÖ had sought such a status for many years, complaining about their unfair exclusion from governmental positions. And the SPÖ was the party that finally granted the FPÖ that legitimation.

This process of normalization was in part enabled through a reorientation of the FPÖ’s racist inventory. From 2005 onwards, the party decidedly shifted its racist propaganda. Riding the global wave of “war on terror” discourse, it specifically targeted Islam and Muslims in its campaigns.

This was a crucial operation, as it allowed the FPÖ to both strengthen its racist demarcation (“our people”) and create common ground with segments of Austrian society who hadn’t been amenable to the explicit style of xeno-racism and antisemitism of Haider’s FPÖ.

To be sure, these elements haven’t disappeared; especially among the party cadre, all kinds of racist views are held. But in their propaganda, the figure of the Muslim as a culturally alien subject has become pivotal, allowing them to connect with liberal and conservative Catholic ideological currents.

Although traditionally anti-clerical and anti-Catholic on pan-Germanist grounds, the party established a new allegiance to the “Christian Occident” while protesting against the construction of mosques and Islamic cultural centers.

Further, despite the party’s patriarchal conservatism and fierce anti-feminism, FPÖ campaigns against headscarves allowed them to pose as champions of women’s liberation and sexual freedom. Sometimes, this curious development is portrayed as “extreme right-wing positions spilling over into the political mainstream.” In fact it is the other way round.

The broad acceptance of Islamophobia in the political mainstream across Europe allowed the FPÖ an association with respectability and “common sense” that the party of the 1990s could have only dreamed of.

Another major difference between today’s political landscape and that of the 1990s relates to the FPÖ’s ability to understand and utilize the cultural forms of the latest technology; in social media, the architects of the Freedom Party’s strategy have found a new set of instruments for building a textbook populist community.

The construction of a populist bloc is always predicated on the mobilization of affect — a sense of belonging and repellence. The prime aim of populist campaigns is not to convince people to agree to a set of political propositions, but to offer them a community to which they can affiliate themselves.

The idea is that, in opposition to those outside the community, and through the redeeming figure of the leader, one can find wholeness in a traumatizing world of injustice, anxiety, and instability. Even if it’s just on Facebook. Heinz-Christian Strache’s personal page has almost three hundred thousand likes; it is the center of a network of right-wing online presences that allows supporters to share, like, and amplify their resentments.

Strache and his team primarily post newspaper items, blog posts, or pictures — often somehow related to Muslims, refugees, feminists, or other unsavory figures — without any comment or explanation, shared with a lapidary “FYI.” The reactionary narrative then emerges seemingly organically, through the comments posted by members of this community.

It’s a hermetic space, largely impenetrable for counter-arguments or dissenting views. It produces a loop of mutually reinforcing affects that regularly leads to outbursts of open hatred, contempt, and aggression (which, the party is quick to stress, they cannot be held accountable for).

The crisis that made this sort of politics viable is a crisis not just of capital accumulation, but of political representation, ideology, and subjectivity. It is a crisis of being.

Post-election studies have found that FPÖ voters are “three times more likely to be worried about the future” than supporters of other parties. The Social Democrats’ storyline for the past years has been: “We managed to navigate the ship through the turbulences of a European and global crisis; it’s much worse elsewhere: look at Italy, Spain, Greece!”

And technically this is true. Largely because of its close integration with the export-oriented German economy, Austria has largely been spared the most severe social effects of the eurozone crisis. The country’s austerity measures were much less harsh than in, for instance, the UK or Eastern Europe.

Nonetheless, Austria’s unemployment rate today is the highest since 1945, real wages are stagnant, and precarious employment is on the rise. At the same time, political convulsions on a world scale make themselves felt much more directly and locally.

The FPÖ is the only political force offering a coherent narrative to the discontented, the anxious, and the angry. This is a narrative that not only names the culprits — Muslims, multiculturalists, feminists, the political elites — but also presents a way out of the misery as well: by empowering the force of order and common sense, personified in its leader H. C. Strache. A crisis, Gramsci wrote, can last for decades: “in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Finally, what distinguishes this moment from Haider’s rise in the 1990s is that a number of regimes exist in Europe today that could offer, if not a blueprint, then at least a point of orientation for a far-right state project in Austria. At the apex of its electoral success, in 1999, the FPÖ was a pioneering force for the European far right.

While Haider had in the early 1990s fantasized about a new Austrian constitution involving a strengthened federal presidency and strong plebiscitary elements, its inclusion in a coalition government as a junior partner never threatened the institutional architecture of Austria’s liberal democratic state.

Things are much different now. Across the border, some one hundred kilometers from Vienna, Viktor Orbán has transformed the Hungarian Republic into a semi-authoritarian regime, strangling progressive elements of civil society, marginalizing the opposition, and curtailing civil liberties.

The FPÖ leadership has explicitly and repeatedly stated its affinity for Orbán’s project. And although for historical reasons the far right has little sympathy for Russia, members of the FPÖ have expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin’s “guided democracy” and opposed the Austrian government’s support for EU sanctions against Russia.

The party’s leaders have undoubtedly learned their lesson from their last stint in government. Should there be a next time, they will not settle for the thankless task of a junior partner. They will aim not to be part of a government, but to “become the state,” as Gramsci said.

The Challenge

These strengths and aspirations, which distinguish the Austrian Freedom Party’s current rise from its previous growth cycle, are cause for alarm. However, they are circumstances, not determinants.

Indeed, in one potentially decisive respect, the situation in Austria today is quite similar to the one fifteen years ago. Then as now, no credible left force exists on the federal level. In the 1990s, this was the rule in most of Europe, as social-democratic parties pushed neoliberal agendas while Communist parties remained paralyzed or disappeared.

Today, the lack of a political left makes Austria somewhat of an anomaly in Europe. The political vacuum left by a neoliberalized Social Democracy has been completely filled by the far right and its social nativism — no formation comparable to Syriza, Podemos, or the German Die Linke has emerged.

At the same time, both Social Democrats and Conservatives have tried to regain voters lost to the FPÖ by pandering to the right wing’s racist rhetoric, thereby accepting and legitimizing the FPÖ’s discourse.

This remains the key condition for the FPÖ’s success. The Left’s response must be to develop its own vehicles to channel popular anger and discomfort into a project of hope and solidarity, turning it against the power of capital and political elites.

As elsewhere, this can only develop out of existing and emerging practices of collective struggle and solidarity. Even in Austria, the land without strikes, such elements exist. Recently, Vienna saw huge protests against the deadly “Fortress Europe,” with the number of participants surpassing organizers’ most optimistic expectations.

On a less visible scale, volunteers on the ground are organizing practical solidarity and support for refugees all over the country. In many of these initiatives, people are developing new networks, demands, and sociopolitical practices, some of which involve acts of civil disobedience (such as helping migrants circumvent border controls).

Experiences like these can become resources of resistance against the rise of the Right, if we manage to organize and invent our own alternatives. This is not a comfort; it is a challenge.