History shows Austria’s far right, divided for now, will return


v Far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) leader Norbert Hofer spoke of “liberation” from a “personality cult” after its former chair Heinz-Christian Strache was expelled from the party on Friday.

Happening in the same week that three FPÖ representatives on Vienna’s city council left to form a new faction, the Alliance for Austria (DAÖ), Mr Strache’s exit capped the far-right’s remarkable and unforeseen annus horribilis.

Back in January, the FPÖ sat in coalition with then-chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right People’s Party. Mr Strache was vice-chancellor; his FPÖ ministers in interior and defence meant the far-right oversaw the police, military, and security services

The coalition functioned incredibly well, passing major reforms of the health insurance, pension, tax, and benefit systems with speed and efficiency.

All was stable. Then came Ibiza.

In May, two German newspapers published candid camera footage, filmed in Ibiza in July 2017 that showed Mr Strache and his confidant, Johann Gudenus, offering future state contracts to a woman they believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch in return for her financial support.

Mr Strache resigned, Mr Kurz dissolved the coalition, and new elections were held in September.

Having won 26 per cent of the vote in the previous election, the FPÖ was already down to 20 per cent in the polls when, days before the September vote, they were rocked by a second scandal.

Mr Strache, it emerged, had received €10,000 (£8,450) a month in expenses from the FPÖ during his time as leader, and questions surrounded his billing practices. The party had also been paying his rent; for his car, driver, and security detail; and a generous salary to Mr Strache’s wife Philippa in her dubious role as the FPÖ’s “animal rights spokesperson”.

This — and not Ibiza — did the FPÖ in. The expenses scandal showed that Mr Strache, living high on the hog, took his working class base for fools.

In September’s election, the FPÖ slumped to 16 per cent and Mr Kurz, who won handsomely, entered into coalition talks with the Greens, which remain ongoing.

Though Mr Strache maintains he does not wish to lead the new DAÖ, the far-right will certainly go into 2020’s state elections in Vienna a house divided.

Austria has been here before, of course: following years of internal strife, ex-FPÖ chair Jörg Haider led a splinter movement out of the party in 2005, forming the Alliance for the Future of Austria.

The far-right vote was split and for more than a decade, Austria was governed by a grand coalition of left and right.

But then the FPÖ recovered. The fact is that the so-called “third camp” — a mix of Austrian nationalists, greater German nationalists, and liberals — has been an immovable part of Austrian politics since the First Republic was founded in 1919.

In previous years it has shared power not just with the People’s Party, but the Social Democrats too.

Its fortunes have risen and fallen, and once more the FPÖ is at a low ebb, beaten down and divided. But history shows the far-right will have its day again in Austria.

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