Facing the threat from right-wing populism at June’s Euro-elections, Austria offers lessons for progressives.
Although the mainstreaming of the far right is often presented as European democracies’ main contemporary challenge, in Austria this is neither new nor does it any longer surprise. Despite the country’s nationalist-socialist past and its role in the Third Reich, which led most Austrian parties at the outset to place a cordon sanitaire against the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), the far-right party has nonetheless repeatedly been included in governing coalitions with the centre-right and effectively normalised over the years.
And ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections, the FPÖ is surging in the polls. There is a real chance of an FPÖ-led government under the hardliner Herbert Kickl—encapsulating how far the far right and its policy positions have been accommodated in the Austrian public sphere and political system.
The FPÖ is the successor to the Verband der Unabhängigen (Union of Independents), founded by former Nazi functionaries and SS officers in 1949 when former Nazis regained their right to vote. In 1956, after Austria had reclaimed its independence, the FPÖ emerged.
Despite the party’s Nazi roots, and its strain of pan-German-national, anti-Semitic and xenophobic thought, time and again it enjoyed high popularity over subsequent decades. The FPÖ even served as a coalition partner in 1983-87 with the centre-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ), before Jörg Haider—son of former Nazis—took over and the party gained notoriety.
Haider however made radical right-wing politics socially acceptable once again. In the 1999 elections, the FPÖ pipped the centre-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP) and the two parties entered coalition. The first time since the second world war that a western democratic government had incorporated an explicitly extreme-right party (albeit Haider elected not to join it personally), in 2000 Austria thus set a precedent. An international outcry followed, European Union sanctions politically isolating the Alpine republic.
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Diplomatic quarantine of Austria in response to its ambivalent approach to extremist politics was however not unprecedented. In 1986, after the election of the former United Nations secretary-general Kurt Waldheim as president, on an ÖVP ticket, Austria faced isolation, given Waldheim’s attempts to cover up his membership of a Nazi organisation and involvement in war crimes. And although this led to Austria’s reckoning with its role as a collaborator in the Third Reich, it did not prevent the resurgence of the far right over the following decades.
Today, such international reaction to the inclusion of a far-right party in government would be unthinkable, given the intervening success of the far right, not just in Austria but in Europe more generally. In 2017, when the ÖVP was led by Sebastian Kurz into a second coalition with the FPÖ—its distinctions on most issues from the FPÖ by now almost indiscernible—few even batted an eyelid.
As Jan-Werner Müller writes in his latest book, Democracy Rules, there is no western democracy where a right-wing, authoritarian-populist party has come to power without the help of established conservative elites. This is particularly true of Austria, where the ÖVP repeatedly elevated the FPÖ to governing positions while taking over some of its ideas, particularly on ‘immigration’. Other parties did pursue a policy of exclusion, trying to minimise the appeal of the FPÖ, but with limited success—far-right ideas and policy positions having been ‘shamelessly normalised’, as Ruth Wodak puts it, especially under Kurz.
Now any attempt by the ÖVP to demonise the far right would seem rather dishonest. As a paper by Reinhard Heinisch and Fabian Habersack demonstrates, trends in public opinion now tend to favour far-right positions and the two parties share essentially the same voter base. This further motivates the ÖVP to align its policy positions with those of the FPÖ, routinising far-right politics and rhetoric.
Forming a government
With each passing week, it seems more and more likely that the FPÖ will take first place in the parliamentary elections in Austria. Were this to be so, for the first time in the country’s history the party would be able to name the chancellor and be tasked with forming a government.
This is concerning not just because of the FPÖ’s links to the neo-Nazi milieu but also its record of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia—swatted away as ‘isolated cases’. A 2024 FPÖ victory would most likely lead to another coalition with the ÖVP, although there is a slim chance that the left and mainstream parties would try themselves to form a government with the ÖVP to keep the far right out.
A rerun FPÖ-ÖVP coalition would seriously harm Austrian democracy. As the party has previously demonstrated, it rejects fundamental liberal values, such as the rights of members of minorities and LGBT+ individuals, and seeks to curtail basic freedoms. Recently, the FPÖ threatened to ‘teach’ the media how to behave.
The far right leaves no doubt about the direction in which it would take the country if it were to lead the government. The FPÖ already showcases it in regional coalitions—latterly with the ÖVP in Lower Austria, where the FPÖ deputy governor is Udo Landbauer, also a member of the extreme-right fraternity Germania.
The regional government there aims to ban gender-inclusive usages in German (such as Lehrer*innen to refer to teachers, male and female) and, in truly nativist fashion, forbid languages other than German being spoken in school playgrounds. It also favours bonuses for restaurants that provide ‘traditional’, ‘national’ cuisine.
Given the unabated rise of the far-right, the question for democratic parties remains how to stem it. That question applies too at the European level, as European Parliament elections loom in June and opinion data suggest a surge in support for the far right.
Another radical-right, Eurosceptic government in Austria would in itself further strain European unity and strength, already challenged by demagogues such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who undermines the EU at every opportunity and defies the image of a ‘geopolitical’ bloc able to speak with one voice. More crucially, the rise of the far right across Europe comes amid pressing international challenges, posed from the outside, which call for more unity among states—not a return to nationalism and ignorance.
There is no panacea. But there are a number of strategems the liberal left could adopt to mobilise its base and maximise its vote share.
First, as Léonie de Jonge and Anna-Sophie Heinze contend, one must understand what drives support for the far right. The FPÖ’s involvement in large-scale corruption under its former leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, led to the break-up of the coalition with the ÖVP in 2019 and its plummeting in the polls. The party’s resurgence can be read as a product of the serial crises of recent years: the pandemic, inflation and economic hardship, the downfall of Wunderkind Kurz undermining voters’ trust in the ÖVP and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with its attendant economic insecurities. While citizens became increasingly dissatisfied with the handling of these crises by the ÖVP-Greens governing coalition, Kickl, Strache’s successor, successfully portrayed ‘immigrants’ and ‘elites’ as scapegoats for all ills.
Unable to compete with the far right’s unstoppable force, the political mainstream has focused on shunning it. Of course, one must clearly affirm the threat posed by the far right and highlight the contradictions among its rhetorical tricks. But to centre on ostracising far-right parties and by implication their voters, portraying them as irrational, makes them feel misunderstood and disdained—feeding into the populists’ narrative of political ‘elites’ who ignore everyday people and their interests. With FPÖ support currently around 30 per cent, one cannot dismiss almost one-third of the voting population in this way.
Yet progressives should equally avoid appropriating issues from the far right and trying to win over voters by moving further to the right themselves. In so doing, they risk alienating their own voters—the issue of people movement being a case in point. As the recent Dutch elections have shown, the centre taking over such right-wing topics can strengthen support for the far right, not weaken it: voters tend to go for the original, not the copy, as the former French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen liked to say.
The far right complains loudly about the status quo and winds up public outrage. Yet in so doing it oversimplifies complex issues, to which its populist discourse offers no viable solutions. Progressives should tap into this specific weakness. They should demonstrate that they are capable of providing effective answers to the most pressing public concerns, actively addressing the issues which otherwise underlie far-right support with convincing arguments.
Liberal-left parties should also present themselves as approachable and genuinely concerned with people’s worries. The new SPÖ leader, Andreas Babler, serves as a great example. Babler acquired currency with his personality and closeness to the base. With his passion and progressive programme, speaking to public concerns, he started a movement which helped the party regain some of its popularity among those who had long given up on it, disenchanted by the factionalism and lack of direction.
Rather than paint ‘immigrants’ as scapegoats for social hardship, he pointed to the powerful economic elites and those who got rich at the expense of the workers. Thus he addressed the concerns of voters and demonstrated that he understood—without dipping into the far-right political toolbox. Moreover, as the mayor of Traiskirchen, a small Austrian town famous for sustaining the country’s largest refugee centre, he serves as a paradigm of how to manage people movement successfully, retaining popularity while demonstrating humanity and refraining from demonising ‘immigrants’.
Those opposing the far right in June across Europe should focus on emphasising and protecting the liberal-democratic values for which they stand and present a compelling programme to address voters’ concerns. In the end, exhibiting a passion for politics and the citizenry while demonstrating competence and a hands-on approach to the challenges of the day will be a more successful way to regain support than copying and further normalising far-right ideas.
Progressives would do well to remind voters that the huge global challenges of today will not be resolved by the politics of the far right, with its embittered inward turn to isolationism and nativism. That, history tells us, has never been a solution.
This is part of our series on a ‘manifesto’ for the June 2024 Euro-elections
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.