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


By in Vienna

Part 2: 'Populism Thrives in Difficult Times'

"Populism thrives in difficult times. It's a phenomenon we see throughout Europe," says Laura Rudas. Already a senior SPÖ politician, she is just 30 years old and patronizingly referred to as a "hot chick" in Viennese political circles. She is seen as a supporter of the Social Democratic chancellor who is loyal to party principles but not known for her subtlety. If Austria is the land of smiles, then Rudas is responsible for the plain-speaking.

Can she explain why Strache, who was once responsible for anti-Islamic election posters and who now berates the Austrian chancellor as an "acolyte of the EU sect," is on his way to making the FPÖ into Austria's strongest party?

It isn't because of the Social Democrats' weak identity, says Rudas. "We stand for distributive justice, for educational justice and financial market controls. We can only implement these things through the direct mobilization of citizens," she says, as if rattling off a campaign brochure text. "You might say that, in this regard, we're 'back to the roots,'" she adds, using the English expression.

Historian Gerhard Zeilinger wrote in the liberal daily Der Standard that the SPÖ "has thrown its principles and party platform over board for years in favor of a cheap, supposedly vote-getting populism." Rudas denies that this is the case. Like many others, Rudas experienced her political awakening during the anti-Haider protests and then worked her way up the ladder.

Many important SPÖ figures -- including the new government spokesman, the chancellor's foreign policy adviser and the SPÖ leader on the powerful foundation board of the public broadcaster ORF -- are in their mid-20s or early 30s. They are alert, networked and determined to rescue the legacy of the deeply traditional Austrian workers' movement by bringing it into the age of information technology.

After work, the young Austrian leftists head for the hip section at the back of Vienna's famous Naschmarkt market or the Procacci Restaurant near St. Stephan's Cathedral, where diners pay €26.50 ($37) for linguini with crawfish and are relatively safe from Strache's down-to-earth followers.

'A Bunch of Young People'

Niko Pelinka denies the charge that a small group of clever, up-and-coming apparatchiks are shaping policy while ignoring the problems of ordinary citizens. He says: "We just happen to be a bunch of young people who shook things up at some point and then got together."

Pelinka, 24, is the most powerful man on the supervisory board of state broadcaster ORF. As the spokesman of the "Friends" of the SPÖ, he will play a pivotal role when the next director is chosen on Aug. 9. Gerhard Zeiler, CEO of the German media company RTL Group, an executive with international standing, has already expressed interest in the position. However, the office of Chancellor Faymann has already made it clear that the current director, Alexander Wrabetz, also an SPÖ member, should be given preference over his cosmopolitan counterpart Zeiler. It's as if star football player Lionel Messi were willing to play in Austria for a fraction of his current salary and yet was rejected, wrote the newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten.

In an open letter written at the end of last year, senior ORF journalists complained that their station's image was being harmed as a result of "politically motivated agreements." The complaint was directed at all parties, at the old system of proportional representation and cronyism that Haider once declared war on and that Strache is now bombarding with even coarser ammunition.

Faymann isn't exactly discrete in the way he deals with the media. He already owes his capture of the chancellorship three years ago to the support of his now-deceased patron Hans Dichand, the grand seigneur of Austria's largest newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, which is critical of the EU. It also didn't hurt that the publisher of the free paper Österreich is Faymann's boyhood friend and that the managing director of the Heute newspaper is his former press spokesman.

Together, the three papers reach 4.3 million readers a day, or more than half of all Austrians. Not surprisingly, they are replete with ads by SPÖ-run government agencies, even though the majority of articles, in terms of tone and content, tend to correspond to the worldview of Strache voters.

Nicer and Nicer

Nevertheless, Faymann and the SPÖ benefit from some of the reporting, including headlines like one in Heute that read: "Schwarzenegger visits Vienna, and raves about schnitzel, Kaiserschmarrn -- and our politicians," next to a photo of Faymann, all smiles, standing next to the Terminator. It doesn't surprise anyone in Austria that Kaiserschmarrn, a traditional Austrian desert, gets higher billing than the chancellor. The line between court reporting and malice is traditionally a narrow one.

Politicians ought to show authority, but instead they "practically run into your arms," scoffs the domestic politics editor at the Kronen Zeitung. "The scary thing about this administration is that they're getting nicer and nicer."

Until a few days ago, an exhibition on the outskirts of Vienna reminded visitors of a time when social democratic rule went almost unchallenged in the country -- the time of the statesman Bruno Kreisky, who was chancellor of Austria from 1970 to 1983. To commemorate his 100th birthday, an exhibition at the massive Karl-Marx-Hof building -- a historic apartment complex that is highly significant to Austrian social democrats -- was dedicated to the socialist many Austrians still worship as the "sun king."

Kreisky, who in 1970 led a minority government that relied on the support of the FPÖ, which at the time had the reputation of being a hotbed of former Nazis, never lost sight of ordinary voters. To this day, he is still quoted as saying: "You have to like the people."

Kreisky's words sound like an admonition to his political heirs. Indeed, at the Karl-Marx-Hof building, the heart of red Vienna, Strache's FPÖ already captured more than a quarter of votes in the last election.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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