Austria’s far-right looks set to be part of the country’s next government, with polls showing it on course to hold the balance of power ahead of elections this weekend.
The last time the Freedom Party (FPÖ) entered government in the year 2000 the EU’s other member states imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria in the hope of forcing the extremists out of power.
Now, polling in second place at around 25 per cent of the vote, the party is confident of returning to power as a kingmaker, and may be on the brink of matching its strongest showing ever.
Last year the FPÖ missed narrowly missed out on capturing Austria’s presidency for the first time, with its candidate Norbert Hofer defeated in final round after a dramatic showdown with Green member Alexander Van der Bellen.
Austria’s political system is different from that of other European countries in that its mainstream parties are happy to do coalition deals with the far-right. In June, even the centre-left social democrats (SPÖ) announced they would work with the FPÖ – dropping a four-decade policy of having nothing to do with them.
The year 2000 sanctions imposed on Austria by the EU’s then 14 other member states were quickly withdrawn after warnings that the measures might be counter-productive and actually stoke up nationalist sentiment in the central European state. The FPÖ has not gone away, however.
In common with many European far-right parties, the FPÖ has in recent years pivoted towards attacking Muslims and Islam.
Also in common with most of its sister parties, it has been rocked by scandal. Originally led in the 1950s by Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi and SS officer, alleged associations with the former regime continue to this day. In the week leading up to the poll the party suspended a member for allegedly saluting Hitler during a council meeting.
The councillor, a party member from the southern state of Styria, has not been named in accordance with local privacy laws. It is illegal in Austria to glorify Hitler or Nazism. The party says its it is taking the allegations very seriously.
Norbert Hoffer of the far-right Freedom Party narrowly lost in the Austrian presidential election (Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)
At the start of this year the party’s leader Heinz Christian Strache claimed Austria was being “Islamified” and called for a ban on what he referred to as “fascistic Islam” – including Muslims symbols.
Echoing the far-right in Germany, the FPÖ has campaigned against the grand coalition government of the centre-right and centre-left, with posters bearing the slogan “the red-black coalition is the big problem” portraying it as a political stitch-up.
An average of major pollsters currently shows the conservative ÖVP with around 33 per cent, and the FPÖ with 25.5 per cent. The social democrats have 24.4 per cent, while the liberal party NEOS polls around 5 per cent, as do the Greens.
The FPÖ would have to win 26.9 per cent of the vote to see its strongest showing ever – well within the margin of error.
Though the Austrian party’s rise is less historic than that of the German AfD’s – which was the first far right party in the Bundestag in half a century – its result will if anything have a more direct effect on Austrian politics.