Austrian populists expect to be kingmakers as politics takes turn to right

Freedom party dictates tone of Sunday’s election, as Social Democrats tainted by ‘dirty tricks’ strategy.

Austrian politics is set to tip to the right less than a year after averting a far-right presidency by the populist Freedom party , with the party on course to emerge as coalition kingmaker in Sunday’s national elections.

Though currently fighting for second place behind 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz of the centre-right Austrian People’s party (ÖVP), the Freedom party has managed to dictate the agenda of a campaign centred largely around immigration and fears of radical Islam, and will receive a last-stretch boost from a “dirty campaigning” row between the traditional centre parties.

Neither Kurz nor incumbent chancellor Christian Kern of the centre-left SPÖ have ruled out entering a coalition with the Freedom party, whose current leader Heinz-Christian Strache could become the first European politician with a neo-Nazi background to sit in government since the second world war.

If it enters government, the Freedom party wants to deny migrants access to welfare payments, introduce Swiss-style referendums and push for Austria to join the Visegrád group of central European states whose borders overlap with the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian empire.

FPÖ politician Norbert Hofer, who was beaten in the race for the Austrian presidency by Green-backed Alexander van der Bellen in December 2016, will be pushed by the party as a candidate for the foreign ministry.

Founded by a former Nazi functionary and SS member after the end of the second world war, the Freedom party became the first rightwing populist party to form part of a government in postwar Europe when its late leader Jörg Haider entered a coalition with the conservative ÖVP in 2000 – a that which was at the time met with outrage and economic sanctions from Israel and several EU member states.

A split in 2005 and Haider’s death in a car crash three years later appeared to have signalled the end of the anti-immigration party, yet 12 years later FPÖ officials are not only confident of surpassing their best results of the Haider years but have managed to turn Austria into what political scientists call a “net exporter of rightwing populism”, pioneering strategies later adopted by far-right parties elsewhere in Europe.

Under the leadership of Strache, who was arrested by German police as a 20-year-old for taking part in a march organised by a banned neo-Nazi movement modelled on the Hitler Youth, the FPÖ has professionalised its methods and switched its campaign from broad anti-foreigner sentiment to a more focused anti-Islam rhetoric as early as 2006.

For this year’s national elections, the party produced not conventional campaign ads but a short sitcom series called “The Hubers”, which voices fears about welfare tourism and overcrowding to the sound of laughter without ever explicitly mentioning immigration.

“In terms of strategy, the FPÖ have had an excellent campaign,” said Thomas Hofer, an Austrian communication consultant. “They have managed to go on the attack without looking like they are going over the top.”

Kurz’s candidacy – which has in itself been quite rightwing – appears to have dented the Freedom party’s fortunes. The foreign minister prides himself on having brought an end to the refugee crisis by closing the Balkan route in 2016 and vows to reform the asylum system so that claimants in the future are processed via “rescue centres” outside the European Union. Promises to fight political Islam feature heavily in Kurz’s manifesto.

Having led the polls by a considerable margin since spring 2015, the Freedom party was leapfrogged by the ÖVP and the SPÖ after Kurz announced his run for chancellor in the summer. But political observers argue that this has only made it easier for the rightwing populists to frame Austrian political debate.

“If they had been top of the polls at the start of the campaign, it would have been a nightmare for the FPÖ – they had no experience with that position. But sitting in third place has allowed them to dictate the agenda,” Thomas Hofer said.

The ÖVP and the SPÖ, who have governed Austria in a “grand coalition” for the last 10 years, have further aided the Freedom party’s cause, argued Nina Horaczek, a journalist for Viennese weekly Der Falter and author of a biography of the Freedom party’s leader.

She said: “At first, the two centre parties ignored Strache. Then they demonised him. But eventually they adopted his positions. That has dented their credibility. And the problem is that if they tack to the right, Strache can always go one step further.”

While Kurz has pushed for fines for migrants who refuse to take part in integration courses at schools, the FPÖ’s manifesto demands scrapping integration courses for asylum seekers altogether.

In the case of Austria’s Social Democrats, credibility was further undermined by the revelation that an adviser working for Christian Kern’s party had created a group of websites churning out xenophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theories in order to discredit Sebastian Kurz in the eyes of far-right supporters.

The revelations around the so-called Schmutzkübel (dirt bucket) affair have put the SPÖ on the back foot and unable to attack the Freedom party for their own negative campaigning and use of antisemitic rhetoric. On his Facebook page, Strache has repeatedly linked to articles which identify Hungarian-American financier George Soros as the shadowy instigator behind the refugee crisis or sanctions against Russia, similar to those reportedly created by the disgraced SPÖ adviser.

Observers such as political scientist Christoph Hofinger believe that the Austrian left had failed to take the right measures to stop the return of the rightwing populists even before the “dirty campaigning” affair.

“Alexander Van der Bellen showed that you can win an election with a campaign built around a notion of inclusive, pro-European national identity,” said Hofinger, director of consulting firm SORA. “But the parties on the left never seriously tried to understand how a Green candidate managed to get over 50% of the vote.”

In a TV debate between Strache and Kern on Monday, the Social Democrat conceded that Austria should have extended restrictions for jobseekers from new eastern European member states beyond 2011. “Kern could have framed his answer differently,” said Hofinger. “He could have pointed out that the tourism industry in Tyrol or the care system would have collapsed without migration from the East.”

In the same debate, Kern was asked if he would consider entering a coalition with Strache’s FPÖ. “As this debate has shown, we are worlds apart,” replied the incumbent chancellor, without explicitly answering the question. Once the cameras had been switched off, Kern and his political opponent Strache disappeared into a hidden corner of the studio’s balcony, for a cigarette and a long chat.