Countering the Radical Right

How COVID-19 deflated the Austrian populist radical right

COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the logic of Austrian politics as refugees and the question of Islam in Austrian society have become largely irrelevant.

Hans-Georg Betz
16 June 2020, 12.01am
Hungary-Austria border crossing
Picture by Leopold Nekula/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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Austrians like to think of their country as an “Insel der Seligen” – an island of the blessed. The notion has a long genealogy, usually attributed to a visit by Pope Paul VI in 1971. At the time, the pope characterized the country as an “isola felice.” No matter the origins, most Austrians at the time would not have disagreed with the pope. Neither would have outsiders. Both in Austria and abroad, Austria stood for “an ideal-typical place where people live happily and harmonically in affluence and without conflicts”.

Recent history has largely dispelled this idyllic notion. During the past three decades, Austrian politics has witnessed waves of political instability and turmoil, reflecting a number of profound tensions and conflicts in Austrian society, which fundamentally tarnished the country’s image abroad. Among the most prominent examples was the rise of Jörg Haider in the 1990s to national and international notoriety. More than any other prominent politician at the time, the new leader of the FPÖ embodied the dramatically growing appeal of radical right-wing populism in advanced liberal democracies. It was under his aegis, that in 2000, the FPÖ was accepted as a coalition partner by the center-right ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party), provoking widespread concern among EU member states.

Haider is long gone, his reputation more than tarnished. So is his successor, Heinz-Christian Strache, who managed to disgrace himself and his party by allowing himself to be conned. The voters’ response was swift and ruthless. In the 2019 national election, the FPÖ suffered dramatic losses, rendering the party unfit to be taken seriously as a potential coalition partner. As it were, Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP), as always the shrewd tactician, negotiated a deal with the Greens, leaving the FPÖ in the rain.

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COVID-19 has once again fundamentally altered the logic of Austrian politics. Issues that agitated the Austrian public in the recent past, such as refugees and the question of Islam in Austrian society, have become largely irrelevant – at least for the moment. As for most other Western European governments, the response to the COVID-19 crisis has been all-consuming. At the same time, the country has been subjected to massive criticism, not least because of the irresponsible behavior of Tyrolian authorities with respect to “Ischgl.”

Ischgl is the major Austrian ski resort which every year attracts thousands of tourists, particularly from Scandinavia. In March, it turned into a major hotspot of COVID-19 infections. Their impact went far beyond Austria’s borders. In Austria alone, more than 600 infections have directly been traced back to Ischgl. From there the virus hitched a ride across Western Europe, from Germany to as far as Iceland, Norway and Sweden. As a result, Austria’s image as a tourist destination has been severely tarnished.

For the FPÖ, the Ischgl disaster was a genuine potential political boon. After all, Tyrol has an ÖVP-Green coalition government – same as on the national level. Yet the FPÖ presented itself more responsible than one might have expected under the circumstances. While the party harshly criticized the obvious negligence of the Tyrolian authorities, it also pointed out that this was not the time for recriminations, but for drawing lessons from this disaster, lessons that might “save lives”.

This relatively measured response was largely in line with the FPÖ’s general response to the COVID-19 crisis. As Der Standard, one of Austria’s leading newspapers – and one not known for being pro-FPÖ -- pointed out in late March, the FPÖ was the only major Austrian party to recognize and appreciate early on the gravity of the crisis. While Austria’s minister of health, in late January, continued to downplay the potential danger the virus posed to the country, the FPÖ made it a central issue demanding, among other things, that stringent controls be imposed on passengers entering the country by air. The government ultimately followed suit, but frequently too late. As a result of the government’s cavalier attitude, at the beginning of March, more than half of the Austrian population thought that the fear of the virus was exaggerated.

the Austrian government finally imposed a general lockdown. Too little too late, as it turned out. The damage was already done

In the week that followed, the infection rate surged, resulting in the death of hundreds of Austrian citizens. By then, a mere fifth of the population still believed the fear of the virus was exaggerated. In response, the Austrian government finally imposed a general lockdown. Too little too late, as it turned out. The damage was already done.

The FPÖ also failed to profit from the controversy that erupted within the eurozone in late March over the question of how to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic. Southern countries, led by Italy, called for the issuing of “coronabonds.” The idea was immediately rejected by the Germans and the Dutch. The Germans, in turn, offered to provide funds within the framework of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), to which the Italians vehemently objected – given the disastrous experience of the Greeks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The FPÖ was quick to follow the Germans. Its leader, Norbert Hofer, issued a strong warning to the red-green Austrian coalition not to cave in to the demands of parts of the Greens who sympathized with the southern “debt countries.” Hofer charged that the COVID-19 crisis was “obviously” being used to “sneek in” the “communization” of the debts of profligate member states, such as Greece and Italy, at the expense of the Austrian tax payer. With this position, the FPÖ was in sharp opposition to the Italian populist right, which in the past had been one its major allies. Obviously, when it comes to money, international populist solidarity comes to a screeching halt.

As it was, the FPÖ’s position paid no political dividends domestically. The Austrian government did not cave in. Not only did it outright reject the coronabond idea, it even joined the Dutch demanding that funding should be based on potentially far-reaching conditions – an idea ultimately dropped in subsequent negotiations. In any event, the Austrian government’s hardcore position took the wind out of the FPÖ’s sails and left them without an issue that would allow them to regain their political profile. Opinion polls reflect the FPÖ’s lack of traction. Most recent polls have them hovering around 10 percent - a far cry from the dizzying heights the party reached under both Haider and Strache.

At the same time, the ÖVP and its charismatic leader, Kurz, have clearly benefited from the crisis, coming close to an absolute majority among those polled. To be sure, in times of crisis, governments generally benefit from an “office bonus.” This, however, is only part of the story. Fact is that the corona crisis has exposed the poverty of the FPÖ’s program. With the closing of Austria’s borders, migrants and refugees are no longer an easy target for populist mobilization. Given the Kurz government’s popularity, populist anti-establishment ranting (assuming that the FPÖ was not itself part of the establishment) appears to have lost much of its punch. Under the circumstances, the FPÖ was hard pressed to find a new issue that would allow it to regain some presence in the media and make itself heard. And it did.

The new issue revolves around the lockdown – or, perhaps better, how quickly to get back to a modicum of “normalcy.” This is an important issue, given the growing public discontent with the restrictions imposed on them. In Germany, it has led to the formation of a new party – Widerstand (resistance) – which immediately gained significant, if largely undeserved, media attention.

FPÖ has been one of the most significant losers among the Western European radical populist right

The idea informing the protest against the lockdown is simple, the reasoning behind it grounded in conspiracy theory: the suspicion that prolonging the lockdown is an intentional attempt on the part of the government to rob citizens of their individual liberties. German polls indicate that there is a substantial minority who might be receptive to this kind of reasoning. In mid-April, roughly a third of German respondents in a representative poll agreed with the notion that the lockdown represented a severe interference with their personal freedom.

In Austria, The FPÖ has promoted itself as the advocate of a “return to normal normalcy (sic).” Among other things, the party’s main spokespersons accused the government of “celebrating the state of emergency” and of having driven thousands of Austrian citizens into permanent “dependency on the black-green bureaucracy”. Saying that the Austrians are “reasonable and responsible citizens”, the FPÖ called on the government to stop its campaign of intentionally scaring the citizens in an attempt to interfere with their basic rights and liberties.

As in Germany, in Austria a substantial minority appears to be receptive to this kind of rhetoric. In late April, in a representative poll, more than a third of respondents agreed with the notion that the restrictions on personal freedom would be maintained after the crisis was over. This is very much in line with the FPÖ’s charge that the government was leading Austria in the direction of an Überwachungstaat (surveillance state) and of Knechtschaft (bondage). Ironically enough, the notion of the surveillance state was first raised in the 1970s, during the mass protests against nuclear power, by new social movements associated with the Greens.

So far, the FPÖ has been one of the most significant losers among the Western European radical populist right. The COVID-19 crisis did not help the party recuperate some of its political credit lost as a result of the Strache affair, nor has it been able to profit from the government’s handling of the crisis. On the contrary, the crisis has cost the party a few more percentage points in the polls. With the shift now in focus towards a return to “normalcy” and growing impatience on the part of the population, it is quite possible that the party’s fortunes might, at least temporarily, improve, particularly if the government is seen as dragging its feet. With the holiday season rapidly approaching, demands for opening the borders are likely to grow louder, and with them the challenge to find a balance between individual freedom and individual security.

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