VIENNA – In Austria, the far right is a stubborn wart that sprouts and recedes but refuses to go away. In 2019, the Freedom Party (FPÖ)’s coalition with the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) collapsed after the then-FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache was caught offering government contracts to someone he believed was the niece of a Russian oligarch in exchange for campaign support. The FPÖ’s vote share fell ten points to 16.2 per cent in parliamentary elections, before the party split in two. Four years later, however, reliable opinion polling shows that 26 per cent of Austrian voters would opt for the far right, offering the horrifying prospect of the FPÖ becoming the largest party in parliament.
The FPÖ is lucky. Despite its past scandals, the political conditions in Austria have made a far-right comeback easier. In spite of government programmes like the capping of electricity prices at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, inflation has driven the price of food and fuel up and bequeathed a cost-of-living crisis for those on lower and middle incomes. And in 2022, more than 100,000 people applied for asylum in Austria: more than in 2015, the year of the migration crisis. These include many migrants from India and Tunisia who have reached Austria via land-based routes and stand no chance of successfully claiming asylum.
The pandemic – and in particular the brief and hastily abandoned attempt to introduce a nationwide vaccine mandate – has also left behind a bitter political legacy. The FPÖ was the only parliamentary party to break from the political consensus on Covid-19. It opposed pandemic restrictions, propagated untruths about vaccination, and its leader promoted the horse deworming agent ivermectin as an alternative form of treatment. The FPÖ was one of many far-right forces central to Austria’s virulent and sometimes violent and anti-Semitic Covid-sceptic protest movement, which peaked in the winter of 2021-22.
Like other far-right parties in Europe, the FPÖ has also taken an adversarial stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, opposing Austrian financial support for Ukraine and Ukrainian membership of the European Union, while describing it as a “corrupt state”. This position may not be surprising considering that, in 2016, the FPÖ signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin, with the two sides committing to organise regular consultations, conferences and seminars together. The FPÖ is, as when it emerged as a political force in the 1990s, campaigning on immigration, Islam and Euroscepticism, once again successfully exploiting wedge issues at a time of tremendous uncertainty and flux.
The far right is also benefiting from the self-sabotage of mainstream parties. The governing centre-right ÖVP is mired in corruption allegations, and its handling of the migration issue has been stunningly superficial. It blocked Romania and Bulgaria’s entry into the Schengen common travel area last month, in part because the party is concerned about losing voters to the FPÖ as it seeks to defend its absolute majority in 26 January’s regional elections in the state of Lower Austria. Meanwhile Karl Nehammer, the chancellor and leader of the ÖVP, continues to work closely with the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, even as their countries provide the main transit route for asylum seekers into western Europe.
The Greens, which started life in the 1980s as an anti-system protest movement, are now in a coalition government with the ÖVP. And while the current socio-economic conditions demand social democracy, the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) is too weak and divided to capitalise on the moment effectively, beset as it is by infighting over party leadership. The broad centre of Austrian politics is lacking. The far right is rising because those voters who feel removed from power and disenchanted with the status quo in Austria believe they have no one else to turn to. Yet if the country’s mainstream parties want to fight against the FPÖ’s surging support, they will need to look at their own failures first.