Austrian Right wing party Comeback

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Austrian Right wing party Comeback

What makes the FPÖ rise again and again

At the political Ash Wednesday on Wednesday evening, FPÖ (Freedom Party Austria) leader Kickl may allow himself to be carried along by growing euphoria. What has made the Blue Party so strong again so quickly?

White sausage and bacon are taboo, but fish spreads and salted stangers are provided: when 2,000 people crowd into the local Jahn gymnasium on Wednesday evening, the concessions to Lent are limited. Of course, there will be beer to wash it down with – and instead of doing penance, as prescribed by the church’s commandments, the star guests will dish it out on stage.

Why should a party with German nationalist roots also adhere to Catholic customs? The FPÖ is proud of its own tradition, which it has been practising in its stronghold in western Upper Austria since 1992, with only two interruptions due to the Corona pandemic: following the example of the Bavarian CSU in nearby Passau, the (Freedom Party) representatives from Ried im Innkreis invite the public to a “political Ash Wednesday” on the first day after the end of Carnival.

Some of the things the spokespersons unload in front of a jeering crowd cause a stir beyond the district borders. Jörg Haider, for example, was once again accused of anti-Semitism.

Today, someone who wrote gags for the former bosses appears in front of the supporters. Herbert Kickl is not a bit inferior to his predecessors in terms of pulling power. The fuss about the limited number of tickets was as great “as in the best times of Haider and Strache”, despite the contribution towards expenses of 15 euros.

Not down for long

This is due to the current upswing. The FPÖ (Freedom Party) has recovered impressively or – depending on how you read it – frighteningly quickly from its crash less than four years ago. The party had been in the doldrums after it was thrown out of government in the wake of the Ibiza scandal. In the Vienna state elections in October 2020, the (Freedom Party) was presented with a bitter bill, plummeting from almost 24 to seven percent – but by the time of the elections in Lower Austria at the end of January this year, it had already returned to its former level in Vienna. In the nationwide polls, the FPÖ is in pole position with 27 to 29 percent.

History is repeating itself. Back in the 2000s, the FPÖ shot itself out of the race under a delirious Haider – only to return in its old strength under Heinz-Christian Strache. What is it that makes the right-wing party rise again and again from a seemingly hopeless situation?

Promises for losers

People who feel unheard, excluded, ignored by those in power – or those they consider to be so: The FPÖ (Freedom Party) can build on this reservoir as long as it remains in opposition. It is no coincidence that Haider’s rise to power in the eighties and nineties coincided with a period of upheaval that produced losers. The former political star also profited from Austrian peculiarities such as the grand coalition entangled in cronyism and the underdeveloped fear of contact with the right-wing fringe in this country. But the roots of the success reach beyond the domestic borders.

Whether one considers globalisation or – as leftists do – more neoliberalism to be the decisive driver: Even in a country like Austria, which was blessed with a relatively stable unemployment rate for a long time, the working world became steadily more uncomfortable for many. Insecure employment was spreading, stable full-time jobs were out of reach, especially for more and more young people. The increasingly confusing reality fuels a retreat into the national idyll – and offer an external enemy in the form of foreigners on whom to unload frustration.

If it’s success is linked to economic circumstances, then is ambitious social policy the antidote? That is easier said than done. Of course, a left-oriented government could try to raise money for redistribution via wealth tax. But as the economist Nikolaus Kowall, noted in a STANDARD debate, national politicians in the globalised world lack the instruments that were still available in the social democratic heyday of the 1970s. The distribution of posts in a nationalised industry no longer played a role: the FPÖ’s promises suggested a wealth of power that was an illusion.

Pessimism as a trademark

In addition, the right’s popularity cannot be explained solely by actual material needs. The crowd of sympathisers is simply too large for that – and of the group that used to be called the proletariat, a large part is not allowed to vote anyway because of their lack of citizenship. According to election researchers, the decisive factor is the outlook: Those who are pessimistic about the future are much more likely to vote for the FPÖ. (Freedom Party)

The past three years have certainly provided enough reason to be pessimistic. The Corona crisis, the Ukraine war and the resulting wave of inflation have led people into a “special psychosocial situation” characterised by nervousness, exhaustion and depression, believes pollster Günther Ogris of the Sora Institute.

In this respect, the Freedom Party was simply lucky: the image of the self-proclaimed anti-privilege party had been badly shaken less by the Ibiza video itself than by ex-party leader Strache’s knighthood for expenses – but then the anger over the Corona policy quickly pushed the memory of the blue affairs out of the minds of voters who had been trimmed for protest. When the government and provincial governors proclaimed compulsory vaccination in autumn 2021, the champagne corks must have popped at FPÖ (Freedom Party) headquarters.

The weakness of others

The idea, which is no longer defended by anyone today, shows: The FPÖ naturally draws its strength from the weaknesses of its opponents. It is not only in Corona management that the chancellor’s party ÖVP (Austrian Peoples Party) has gambled away credibility. The corruption debate is driving former Sebastian Kurz voters back into the Freedom party camp, and the refugee issue, which the Turks wantonly unleashed, was another thematic slide in the Lower Austria election campaign.

This also threw another competitor of the FPÖ into a tailspin. The SPÖ (Social Democrats) not only lacks a unified answer to the “foreigner question”, but also an undisputed person at the top. With the refugee issue, the debate about chairwoman Pamela Rendi-Wagner promptly boiled up again.

However, elections also show that the beneficiaries of the protest mood do not have to be exclusively Freedom Party. As soon as serious competition appears on the populist field, the successes are limited. (Gerald John, 21.2.2023)

Source: Der Standard translated from the German.

Photo: Pixabay (David Peterson)

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