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Austria is sleepwalking toward a far-right victory

by editor

Liam Hoare is the Europe editor for Moment Magazine and author of “The Vienna Briefing” newsletter on Austrian politics and culture.

At the far-right Freedom Party of Austria’s (FPÖ) annual New Year’s rally, held in a beer hall atmosphere in the southern state of Styria on Jan. 13, party leader Herbert Kickl was triumphantly hailed Austria’s “future Volkskanzler” — its people’s chancellor.

It wasn’t the first time the FPÖ employed a term originated by the Nazis — one first applied to Adolf Hitler in 1933.

Upon taking the stage, Kickl railed against the Systemkanzler (the system’s chancellor) and Systemmedien (the system’s media), borrowing from what journalist Ronald Pohl once called “Nazi jargon.” He declared Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer a “dead man walking,” and said he had a “wanted list” of government ministers responsible for the country’s Covid-19 policy. Under FPÖ rule, Austria would become a “fortress.” We will “no longer accept any asylum applications,” the diminutive, bespectacled leader declared.

“Hungary is a role model for me,” Kickl told the party faithful, lest there be any doubt as to the FPÖ’s vision for Austria. His speech was hyperbolic, vicious and ominous. It had the pregnant energy of a party facing little meaningful resistance as it seeks victory in this year’s forthcoming parliamentary elections, and with it, a return to power.

Austria is sleepwalking toward a far-right victory.

It was in mid-November 2022 that the FPÖ first overtook the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) to assume a lead in the polls. And by October last year, the far-right was regularly polling at 30 percent. Considering the FPÖ was down in fourth place with only 11 percent of the electorate’s support during the first wave of Covid-19, bruised as it was by scandal, splits and electoral defeat, this turnaround has been faster than the party — let alone the country — thought possible.

The FPÖ has benefited from a specific set of political circumstances, which have allowed the party to construct a strong coalition of voters by taking a series of obstinate minority positions. This began during the pandemic, with the party opposing Covid-19 countermeasures and taking a skeptical position on vaccines. So, when the government’s failure to introduce a vaccine mandate in the winter of 2021–2022 ignited protests, the FPÖ was able to capitalize on it.

But that’s not all. To its cadre of Covid-skeptics, the FPÖ has since added those opposed to European support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, using the justification of Austrian neutrality to adopt a de facto pro-Russia position. In his New Year’s speech, Kickl pledged to use Austria’s veto to block European funding for Ukraine, its accession to the European Union, as well as “harmful” sanctions against Russia.

The party’s final boost then came courtesy of the reemergence of irregular migration as a political issue, as well as Europe’s energy and inflationary crises begat by the Russia-Ukraine War. In 2022, 112,272 asylum applications were lodged in Austria — that’s more than at the height of the migration crisis in 2015. Year-on-year inflation peaked at 11.2 percent in January 2023 and remains above the eurozone average. And natural gas prices increased by 103 percent in the first half of 2023 compared with the same period the year prior.

For those opposed to the FPÖ, the main worry is that the economic and political conditions show little sign of improvement. The economy remains sluggish. GDP fell by 0.5 percent in 2023 and is only projected to grow by 1 percent this year. Meanwhile, the government’s efforts to mitigate inflation with one-time cash payments and a cap household energy prices haven’t broken through with voters.

Thus, Nehammer’s conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) now finds itself in a double bind. It’s weighed down by the legacy of ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s tenure as party leader: A series of corruption allegations that are currently under investigation. But at the same time, without Kurz, the party has lost the very thing that gave it two successive election victories. Its attempts to mimic the FPÖ, particularly on immigration, are no longer working at the ballot box.

FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl was triumphantly hailed Austria’s “future Volkskanzler” — its people’s chancellor | Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images

At the other end of the political spectrum, though the SPÖ’s fortunes appear to have stabilized under new leader Andreas Babler, the party’s poll numbers are no better now than they were before the navel-gazing process of holding a leadership contest — one that ended in embarrassment when the wrong winner was announced due to a miscount.

Moreover, Babler’s dream coalition — a left-liberal alignment involving the Austrian Greens and the liberal NEOS party — is a fantasy. Plus, the left bloc may be about to become even further divided thanks to the joke Beer Party. At a Jan. 18 press conference, its leader Dominik Wlazny — better known by the stage name Marco Pogo — announced his party’s intention to run should the party attract enough new members and financial support. The SPÖ and Greens already have one challenger in the guise of the Communist Party — they certainly don’t need another.

In short, the government is unpopular, and the opposition is running out of time to find its feet. The economy is weak, and the country’s immediate prospects are bleak. Austria is thus inching its way toward a far-right victory in the upcoming parliamentary elections. And if the ÖVP agrees to go into coalition with FPÖ — as it did in 2000 and 2017 — then the party will return to power once more.

In Austria’s previous two elections, it was a single event that radically altered the dynamics of each race. In 2017, it was Kurz’s coup that saw him take over the ÖVP and blow up its coalition with the SPÖ. In 2019, it was the Ibiza affair, as then-FPÖ leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on tape offering government contracts to a woman he believed to be a Russian oligarch’s relative.

If it’s to avoid a tragic election result, Austria now desperately needs another deus ex machina.

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