Right-Wing Populists on the Rise Austria's Freedom Party Goes from Strength to Strength

Under its leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the right-wing populist Freedom Party has become a force to be reckoned with in Austrian politics. It is currently neck and neck with the country's two largest mainstream parties in the polls. Meanwhile the governing Social Democrats are struggling to reconnect with ordinary voters.

By Walter Mayr in Vienna

DPA

They aren't actually that far apart, the chancellor and his adversary -- at least in geographical terms. While Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann runs the country from the Federal Chancellery on Vienna's Ballhausplatz square, Heinz-Christian Strache meets with visitors five minutes away at his office in a palace, which has a view of the city's rooftops.

The leader of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Strache has steel-blue eyes and looks dashing in a dark suit. He is not someone who shies away from selling pipe dreams as prophecies. "As chancellor," he promised in June, he plans "not to do everything differently" but to "improve many things."

In his choice of words, Strache sounds out of touch with reality. Given that he is the nightmare of Austria's major parties, the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), who does he intend to govern the country with? "That'll work itself out," he says. "After the next elections, different people will be in charge" in the SPÖ and the ÖVP.

Polls now place Strache's FPÖ consistently neck and neck with the two "old parties," and in May it was even the top choice among voters. Strache is already telling people that if he comes into power, the country will no longer pay a cent for "bankrupt EU countries like Greece" because, for someone like him, "the red, white and red shirt" -- a reference to the colors of the Austrian flag -- "is tighter than the Brussels straitjacket."

A Statesman in Waiting

The next election is in 2013. Is it pure Angstlust if, in the city of Sigmund Freud, newspaper editors are already fretting about the possibility of Strache becoming chancellor? Or do people want to nip the development in the bud, as some kind of democratic early warning system?

Strache was tied to the neo-Nazi community in the past and was forced to admit that he took part in militia training. Today he paints himself as a statesman in waiting and only rarely sends out signals to like-minded individuals -- such as when, during a visit to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in December, he wore a cap that identified him as a lifelong member of the right-wing student fraternity "Vandalia" instead of a Jewish skullcap.

At its convention in June, the FPÖ renewed its commitment to the German ethnic community, boosting Strache's right-wing credentials even beyond those of his mentor, Jörg Haider. The former FPÖ leader, who died in a car crash in 2008, had committed himself to Austrian patriotism before he died. Strache says that it was Haider's historic achievement to have destroyed the system of cronyism promoted by the SPÖ and the ÖVP. But Haider, according to Strache, was also responsible for the FPÖ's original sin: its entry into a coalition government under former ÖVP Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel in 2000.

At the time, the European Union responded to this step by ostracizing Austria diplomatically. Now, 11 years later, the FPÖ has reached the same voter-approval rating it had during Haider's heyday -- 27 percent. This comes as no surprise, says Strache. "A culture war is raging in our country, and we are leading the debate."

'Always Smile'

In his office on nearby Ballhausplatz, the current chancellor takes a relaxed view of all this. The photogenic Chancellor Faymann embodies contemporary Austria as the land of smiles, invoking the spirit of composer Franz Lehar, who wrote an operetta of the same name. "Always smile and always be cheerful," is a line in one song. It could be Faymann's motto.

How does he do it? Faymann's campaign coach, the mime Samy Molcho, once wrote in the weekly magazine Falter: "You have to smile and exhale at the same time, or else your smile will turn into a mask." Perhaps this explains Faymann's impassive approach to the malice that is currently being showered on a government that now seems to be focusing on governing itself rather than the country.

"Our politicians are too idiotic and cowardly, and too ignorant," Andreas Treichl, head of Austria's largest bank, Erste Group, said in May, referring to what he perceived as a lack of economic competence. Gerd Bacher, the former director of Austrian broadcaster ORF, complained about a "despotism of little minds" and a "massive blockage when it comes to major reforms."

Strache and his friends like to hear this sort of thing. They are now riding a wave of popularity, with their approval ratings rising almost without the party even having to do anything. All they have to do is stand still and be carried along in the wake of the current trend. The successes of right-wing populists in countries like Finland and France play into the hands of the euroskeptic FPÖ.

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