At the heart of the scandal that broke the right-wing coalition government in 2019, the Freedom Party is now riding high.
We want to build a media environment similar to that of Orbán.
I want a role like Orbán.
So said the former Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache during a short 2017 trip to Ibiza, where he and a party colleague met an alleged niece of a Russian oligarch. They wanted to talk business—and did so openly and candidly, while also discussing how they could influence the media and build a quasi-autocracy in Austria, akin to that established under Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
Unfortunately, this was all secretly filmed, the video released in May 2019. ‘Ibiza-gate’ caused the right-wing governing coalition with the conservative ÖVP, under Sebastian Kurz as chancellor, to implode. The far-right FPÖ plummeted in the polls and snap elections brought forward the first coalition between the ÖVP and the Greens.
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And yet, a mere four years after Strache’s demise, his party is back on its feet, leading in the polls. It won recent regional elections in Salzburg and Lower Austria and is now in governing coalitions in their state parliaments. If elections were to be held next Sunday, the party would likely win and be able—for the first time in history—to appoint the chancellor.
What explains this seemingly sudden resurgence of the FPÖ? It has turned out to be the prime beneficiary of serial crises—domestic and transnational.
First, in spring 2020 came the pandemic. The Austrian government, apparently struggling with how to react to this public-health crisis, imposed increasingly strict measures. The FPÖ openly supported almost-weekly anti-lockdown demonstrations in Vienna, which it did much to organise, and its activists enjoyed their shining hour. They were able to bring together and unite people from all points on the political spectrum, through to the far left. By clear positioning in robust opposition to the government’s Covid-19 measures, the FPÖ regained some of the voters it had lost while also appealing to new ones.
Next, in October 2021 a corruption scandal allegedly implicating Kurz led to his resignation and, shortly after, to him quitting politics altogether. The turmoil ended with the appointment of the minister of the interior, Karl Nehammer, a rather inconspicuous figure, as Austria’s chancellor.
Then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 produced an energy crisis, leading to soaring bills in Austria, a country highly dependent on Russian gas. With inflation compounded by the pandemic and supply-chain interruptions and bottlenecks, as well as increased government expenditure through one-off handouts, ordinary citizens have suddenly found themselves plunged into a hitherto-unknown financial precariousness. The ÖVP-Greens coalition has however reacted too slowly to alleviate their concerns, exacerbating their frustration with the government.
In this situation, the social-democratic SPÖ could have stepped in, promoted social policies that addressed public anxieties and presented viable solutions. The party could have regained credibility—were it not preoccupied with its internal disputes over its future leadership.
So far however, the SPÖ has been unable to take advantage, despite the favourable domestic circumstances. Its outgoing leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner—the first woman in this position in the over-130-year history of the party—had to deal with sideswipes from colleagues, above all Hans Peter Doskozil.
Doskozil was apparently chosen by delegates at a special conference at the weekend to succeed Rendi-Wagner as leader. But today the SPÖ electoral commission announced that there had been a mix-up in the votes and that Andreas Babler, the leftist candidate, had won the contest after all. Whether the SPÖ will finally be able to present itself as a united party, and regain some of its lost voters with the social-democratic policies citizens urgently need and expect from it, remains to be seen.
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Against the background of these successive national and international shocks, it seems the turbulence of the years with the FPÖ in government has been forgotten: the dangers the party poses to democracy, its lack of any real solutions to crises, its vitriolic rhetoric instead against ‘outsiders’. Indeed, despite its inability to offer credible alternatives, the FPÖ has been able to appeal repeatedly to stirred-up emotions to bring about its revival.
Now that the leadership question in the SPÖ seems, at least officially, settled, the hope remains that the social democrats can finally present a united front against the far right. The SPÖ must be wary of the FPÖ’s constant attempts to supplant official discourse with ‘non-issues’ and resist positioning itself vis-à-vis the items the FPÖ throws up.
Instead, it should focus proactively on leading domestic debates with its own social-democratic agenda, addressing the worries of the public and presenting viable solutions, without drifting to the right. Otherwise, the 2024 parliamentary elections will bring an uncomfortable reckoning.
Gabriela Greilinger is an Austrian-Hungarian political scientist and co-founder of the youth platform Quo Vademus. She regularly writes about EU politics, international affairs, democracy and populism, with a regional focus on Europe and in particular central and eastern Europe.