The rise of the populist far right in Europe is not a recent phenomenon. Granted, some of the parties have only emerged in the last decade; but others have been in gestation for longer. Of all these parties, perhaps the most successful has been the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Cobbled together from former Nazi moderates and German nationalist sects following the advent of the Second Republic, the FPÖ has occupied a central position in Austrian politics since 1956.
The party has assumed many different guises over the decades. For thirty years, its nationalism was relatively benign, its leaders moderate. The party was sufficiently pragmatic to prop up the minority Social Democratic (SPÖ) government of Bruno Kreisky between 1970 and 1971, notwithstanding the fact that Kreisky was Jewish. The party shifted even further to the centre following the election of Norbert Steiger as chair, who emphasised the party’s values of economic liberalism and individual freedom.
The centrist shift was such that the FPÖ entered into coalition with the SPÖ in 1983. But despite its modernisation, the FPÖ won only 5% of the vote in that election, one of its worst ever results. As it assumed the poise of government, opinion polls registered even greater declines in its share of the vote. Internal strife wracked the flailing party, especially as the popularity of the charismatic Jörg Haider increased: in 1986, he was elected leader on the back of the votes of the disgruntled nationalist wing of the party.
Haider is chiefly remembered as a maverick who reinforced the international perception that Austria had not addressed the full extent of its embrace of Nazism and the Third Reich. He loudly admired the full employment policy of the Nazis; the mettle of former Waffen-SS veterans; and made a variety of racist and anti-Semitic comments. He was overtly anti-establishment, his radicalism chiming with a population who are historically suspicious of such attitudes. Indeed, under Haider’s leadership, the party proved itself proficient at capturing the votes of both the middle and working classes, both in the countryside and in the cities – no mean feat in a country where a sharp split exists between the two.
By 1999, the party was at the height of its popularity, narrowly beating the centre-right Austria People’s Party (ÖVP) to second place in the federal elections. The two parties formed a coalition, albeit on condition that Haider be precluded from the cabinet and relinquish his chairmanship of the FPÖ. Wolfgang Schüssel of the ÖVP – a reformist centrist – was to serve as chancellor to soothe tempers abroad. Tempers flared nonetheless, with fourteen European states severing diplomatic ties with Austria, expressing disgust that an extremist party could rise to power.
Government proved again to be the undoing of the FPÖ, as the party quarrelled in the wake of a vote share that fell from 26.5% in 1999, to 10% in 2002. In 2005, Haider splintered from the party with the majority of its elected members to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), which espoused social conservatism and economic liberalism. It was not the same beast as the FPÖ, building its support base primarily in rural areas. Either way, it was a flash in the pan: despite scoring well in the 2008 elections, days later Haider was killed when he crashed his car on a remote road in Carinthia, where he was governor. The incident allegedly followed a drunken argument he had with his secret homosexual lover. The BZÖ were eliminated as a party in parliament at the 2013 election.
In the meantime, the FPÖ has enjoyed a revival under the leadership of Heinz-Christian (“H.C”) Strache, a young dentist who played the vote-winning anti-establishment card, steadily increasing the party’s vote share from 11% in 2006, to 17.5% in 2008, to 20.5% in 2013. He accomplished this by appealing to the youth. He raps, fraternises on Facebook and shows off his abs. The FPÖ seen sharing the platform with populist parties elsewhere is young, modern and radical – a worrying cocktail.
For an outsider, it is easy to laugh at the FPÖ, despair of the Austrian public and talk about Nazism. This is a mistake. Strache has assumed the mantle of a man who was surely one of the wiliest European politicians of the last thirty years. It is true that the sentiments Haider capitalised on, and the values he espoused, grew on Austrian soil. But he also anticipated a wider phenomenon well in advance of the likes of Wilders, Le Pen, Grillo, Vona and Farage.
The phenomenon in question was the reality that there is a cross-section of society who would be left behind, or at the very least out of pocket, by globalisation. In the case of Austria, globalisation is primarily symbolised by the processes of European integration. With more borders than any other European state, it has been particularly exposed to the cross-border traffic resulting from the free movement of labour. Many Austrians feared the rapid socioeconomic change migrant influxes could bring, ever anxious about upheaval. Haider and the FPÖ were thus able to appeal to the “little man” in a way that transcends the left-right distinction.
On the one hand, the party championed workers anxious about job security and employment conditions, and threatened by the spectre of the multinational and the foreign worker. Elsewhere, it championed social conservatives and nationalists frustrated that their concerns about the dilution of national identity are ignored by the establishment. Later, Strache harnessed the party’s ideal of individual freedom to attract the youth.
None of this may be new, but it was novel at the time. The cross-voter appeal also demonstrates that it’s probably a misnomer to refer to the ‘European far right’ as such. More than anything, the European populist parties have aspirations to be mass movements espousing a form of lower case national socialism: above all else, welfare, employment and freedom for the native worker at the expense of the foreigner. Most European populist parties have embraced this idea: for example, even UKIP – originally Thatcherites on speed – have broadened their appeal with old left-wing voters by saying that they would protect their benefits and wages.
But even Haider’s ascent in the 1980s was not entirely unprecedented. The Austrian public had been sold a national socialist agenda before. In March 1938, Nazi Germany marched into Austria and annexed it following nigh unanimous consent in a referendum. The conditions for annexation had been taking root since the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919 – and there was considerable desire for it among all three major political groupings; except it was prevented by the allied powers.
In the run-up to the referendum, the Nazis ran a blisteringly effective campaign. Although Jews and other identified undesirables were forbidden from voting – and considerable peer pressure was exerted on floating voters through gentle suggestion – the votes cast did not need to be manipulated.
This was because amidst the spectacle and razzle-dazzle of the campaign, the Nazis offered something to everybody in a country that had been festering at the very bottom of the European barrel for twenty years. To the socialists and working class, they pledged full employment; to the conservatives, they pledged that they would protect the church and restore law and order; and to the pan-German nationalists, they promised to fulfil that long-awaited union of Germans.
This isn’t to argue that history is repeating itself in Austria specifically, or Europe more generally. But it serves to illustrate that in uncertain times, extremist parties can draw support from across the political spectrum with a multi-faceted radicalism that pleases everyone, even if it is at the expense of some scapegoats – which the masses are prepared to overlook until the hangover kicks in, and the damage has been done.