VIENNA — Every election season without fail, top far-right politicians gather for a major final rally at Viktor-Adler-Markt in the heart of Vienna’s diverse 10th district. The square, lined by döner stands and discount stores and crowded with after-work shoppers, is both a symbol for the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and visible proof of the Viennese multiculturalism it vows to fight against.
Covering rallies here comes with a sense of cognitive dissonance: Women in headscarves push strollers past crowds of mostly white supporters waving red-white-red Austrian flags and listening to rhetoric about the failures of integration. The scene is a potent reminder of the political dynamics: The contrast between a largely liberal, multicultural city like Vienna and the relatively conservative country it is part of.
There was more than just one far-right closing rally in the final days before Sunday’s municipal elections, however; I visited both events at Viktor-Adler Markt. That’s because the far-right Freedom Party, or FPÖ, has split: Its former longtime leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, ran as head of a new far-right splinter party, the Alliance for Austria. “We are the new freedom family,” he told the few hundred supporters gathered that evening.
One could be forgiven for discerning no significant difference between the two events, apart from the fact that Strache’s, less well-funded than that of his former FPÖ colleagues, did not offer free beer and bratwurst. On the Wednesday before the elections, Strache stood on stage denouncing what he deemed the failure of the government’s coronavirus policies and of integration in Austria, despairing that Austrians “have become a minority in their own homeland.” Two nights later, on the Friday before the election, FPÖ candidate Dominik Nepp stood in exactly the same place echoing many of the same topics in nearly identical language.
Both the FPÖ and Strache’s new party had a deeply disappointing showing at the polls Sunday, largely due to Strache—a pair of massive scandals he instigated, and his attempted comeback on a party ticket of his own. The FPÖ’s losses were staggering and unprecedented: The party went from an all-time high of 31 percent in 2015 to just 7.1 percent this year, meaning about three-quarters of its electorate either chose someone else or stayed home entirely.
Strache’s comeback attempt fared no better: He received just 3.3 percent of the vote, well below the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in the city council. The man who 18 months ago was Austria’s vice-chancellor has now been reduced to winning no more than a seat in several district-level councils—the same job he held when entering politics nearly 30 years ago. Strache, for his part, announced Tuesday that he will not take up a seat; he plans to found a new magazine instead.
For the FPÖ, the results will surely prompt a period of rebuilding and re-strategizing, although it’s unclear whether the party leadership believes there’s anything it truly needs to change. Nepp told the Austrian broadcaster ORF on Sunday evening that the results were a sign the party needs to win back trust from many of its key voters. Still, he made it clear he believes the blame lies with Strache alone: “When you’re constantly connected with him, of course that scares off one or the other voter, who then stayed home.”
The Vienna elections dealt a final, major blow to the Austrian far right’s big ambitions, at least for the time being: A perfect storm of self-inflicted wounds and an enduring loss of trust, all amid a global pandemic that’s forced many of Europe’s far-right parties on the defensive. In the seven months since the coronavirus pandemic first hit Europe in earnest, far-right parties not in government have struggled to meet the moment. Typically focused on immigration and integration issues to the exclusion of nearly everything else, parties like the FPÖ and Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) seem unable to adjust their populist rhetorical style to a time in which people are looking for steady, competent leadership through the crisis. Since the overwhelming majority of the public in each country tends to approve of its government’s handling of the pandemic, far-right parties’ rhetoric criticizing official measures appeal to only a relatively small audience.
But although those dynamics certainly didn’t help either the FPÖ or Strache, both parties’ electoral failures were primarily of their own making—and more a statement about the far right’s tendency toward mistakes and corruption than the broader dynamics of pandemic politics.
The FPÖ’s total collapse in Vienna and Strache’s failure to win seats in the city parliament are the culmination of an 18-month narrative arc that sometimes defied belief: Back in May 2019, barely more than a month into my ICWA fellowship, the German news organizations Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung released secret video footage from a 2017 meeting on the Spanish island of Ibiza. In the video, Strache and his fellow FPÖ colleague Johann Gudenus are seen speaking with someone they believe to be the niece of a wealthy Russian oligarch, offering potential government contracts in exchange for help with their election campaign.
The video caused a political earthquake in Austria: Strache, who was serving as vice-chancellor in a coalition between the FPÖ and center-right People’s Party (ÖVP), resigned from his post and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for fresh elections. The Austrian parliament then ousted Kurz and his ministers in a vote of no confidence, installing a caretaker government until after the September elections.
At the time, many FPÖ voters seemed willing to give Strache the benefit of the doubt: They believed the defense of his conduct as a drunken mistake, and agreed with his assessment that someone was clearly out to get him. But when a second scandal hit just before election day—this time over Strache’s misuse of thousands of euros per month in party funds—many simply had enough. The party lost 10 points in that election, with some voters defecting to Kurz’s ÖVP and many others opting to stay home.
Although the far right’s current predicament is dire, this isn’t the first time the FPÖ has faced an internal split—nor the first time such a division has caused long-term damage to the party’s fortunes. Indeed, the last time the FPÖ was part of the national government, starting in 2000, it also split into two parties. Then, like now, the party leader—Jörg Haider, often seen as the father of the modern, nativist FPÖ—left the party and formed his own, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). In the 2006 national elections, the first after the party schism, the FPÖ received 11 percent of the vote and Haider’s BZÖ received 4 percent. That was a far cry from the 27 percent the FPÖ had won in 1999, the result that enabled it to join the government in the first place.
The last few years have borne out a similar pattern: The FPÖ received 26 percent of the vote in 2017, entering into government with Kurz’s party shortly after. Its support dropped sharply after Strache’s Ibiza and expense account scandals, falling to 16 percent in last fall’s snap elections. The Vienna vote completes the trend: Now that Strache has broken off on his own to form a new party, both he and the FPÖ have hit a new low. Even taken together, support for both parties amounted to barely more than 10 percent of the total votes.
Far-right parties seem unable to adjust their populist rhetorical style to a time in which people are looking for steady, competent leadership through a pandemic.
Far-right parties in general have a tendency toward infighting, often manifesting in power struggles between their more radical and moderate wings. The FPÖ’s counterpart in Germany, the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), ought to take note: It, too, has been through several rounds of such internal spats and personnel issues, although it has managed to hold together thus far.
After its far-right “wing” was put under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence service for extremist activities, more moderate members of the party sought to dissolve the “wing” and limit its members’ influence in party leadership. And earlier this year, the party opted to kick out Brandenburg party leader Andreas Kalbitz over his past involvement in a neo-Nazi youth organization, a decision that didn’t sit well with many “wing” members.
Such infighting was on display throughout the campaign, both explicitly and implicitly. At the end of his speech at Viktor-Adler-Markt, FPÖ general secretary Herbert Kickl admitted his party wasn’t perfect—but made an implicit reference to Strache as the cause of all those mistakes. “We haven’t always done everything right, and we’ve made our mistakes,” he told the crowd. “But we’ve said goodbye to those who have done us the greatest damage, and the country along with us.”
Strache, meanwhile, devoted significant space in his speech to going after his former colleagues for the way they treated him. At one point, he put on a voice to imitate FPÖ leader Norbert Hofer, saying Hofer was willing to compromise the party’s ideals in order to get back into government: “Please, please, please, I want to be in government again!” Strache said to laughs from his audience.
This kind of public spat can ultimately be a major turnoff to a far-right party’s voters, even loyal ones: Jakob-Moritz Eberl, a researcher in political communication at the University of Vienna and a member of the Austrian National Election Study, likened it to a child watching her parents fight and feeling like her world as she knew it is crumbling down.
“The FPÖ voters who stayed home did so because they were disappointed,” he told me the morning after the election. “They got disgruntled with both [the FPÖ and Strache] because instead of fighting together, they fought each other… it’s strategic discontent to show them that the way they did it this time is not how they can continue.”
In the leadup to Vienna’s elections, Strache based his comeback campaign around the idea that he had been grievously wronged in both the Ibiza and party funds scandals: That shadowy groups of those opposed to his policies hatched a plot to take him out however possible. That message builds upon decades of such rhetoric from the FPÖ, beginning with Haider in the 1980s. Far-right voters have been told so frequently that everyone else is out to get them that it makes it easy for them to believe their leaders actually have been victims of vast conspiracies.
That message was clear in every part of Strache’s campaign. The refrain of his extremely cheesy (yet unfortunately surprisingly catchy) campaign song says a vote for him would “hurt the powerful.” And in his speech at Viktor-Adler-Markt, he likened his comeback campaign to a “phoenix rising from the ashes,” noting that “criminal groups” are trying to “destroy” him and his political career.
“They succeeded in kicking me out of the government because they knew my work as vice-chancellor, and the program I negotiated, was the best government program for Austria in decades,” he said, adding that as vice-chancellor he had been a “lone fighter” and a “lion” for stricter immigration policies.
Gerald Panagl, a volunteer for Strache’s campaign in the 10th district, told me after the rally that he had always voted for the FPÖ but had never been actively involved in politics—until the aftermath of the Ibiza scandal. He was happy with Strache’s tenure as vice chancellor, and said he had chosen his party over the FPÖ on principle because of the way Strache had been pushed out of politics after Ibiza. “That people use these kinds of methods to take out political opponents—that can never happen again in the future,” he said. “The way things happened with Mr. Strache, who then decided to get involved [in politics] again… I said, in the end, I have to support him.”
That was a theme among the half-dozen conversations I had with Strache supporters. Harald, an older man wearing a traditional trachten hat, told me just before Strache spoke that he was supporting him because he was “really treated very badly.” He said, incorrectly, that the facts show Strache has done nothing wrong—investigations regarding both Ibiza and the party funds are ongoing—adding that Strache “has earned a fair chance to get back into politics.”
At a “Team HC Strache” Oktoberfest celebration the first Saturday in October, about 150 supporters gathered listening to live music and enjoying beers. One woman in a deep red dirndl, who gave me her first name and then changed her mind, said Vienna needs someone “who’s there for the people, who understands us,” and that Strache is that man. “I don’t care if he really said or did [those things],” she added of the various scandals. “He’s simply a leader.” A few tables away, a middle-aged man who also declined to give his name told me he was “disappointed” by Strache, but then—to my horror, given the current rising coronavirus case numbers in Vienna—leaned over and whispered in my ear, “But I’m still with him.”
Others were less convinced. Sylvia, a middle-aged woman standing off to the side as Strache’s rally began, told me she had always voted for him when he was head of the FPÖ but couldn’t see herself supporting him now. “I used to vote for Strache fairly often, but after the most recent developments… I can’t hear about Ibiza anymore, I don’t want to hear about it anymore,” she told me. “No normal citizen can do those kinds of things—I don’t expect it from my politicians, either.”
Why was she watching the speech, then? “Because we went shopping,” she told me with a chuckle, holding up a canvas bag full of groceries. “We have to take the subway home and discovered this along the way… I’m actually just waiting for my husband.”
What does Sunday’s election mean for the future of the Austrian far right? The results were so devastating that it’s hard to see how Strache could launch another comeback attempt in the future. The announcement that he intends to start some sort of magazine seems to be his attempt at remaining part of the political conversation even if he’s not in elected office. Given his strong following on social media and his amplification of far-right disinformation sites in the past, it’s not hard to see the kind of direction in which he may take his new venture.
For the FPÖ, the immediate path forward, and to rebuilding its electorate, is unclear. The party has long been known for its signature issue—migration and integration politics—but no longer has a monopoly on that topic: The ÖVP, which has taken a rightward turn under Kurz’s leadership, addressed many of the same issues in slightly more polite terms. The ÖVP picked up 11 points in Sunday’s election, the largest gains of any party—support that came, presumably, almost entirely from disaffected FPÖ voters.
“The ÖVP proposed similar policies to the FPÖ, but not as bluntly… a national conservative party with almost the same slogans, but more acceptable and thus normalized,” said Ruth Wodak, a professor of linguistics at the University of Vienna who focuses on far-right rhetoric. “Many people obviously decided not to go the extreme right, but to the party in which they had more trust.”
Still, if the party’s fortunes in the early 2000s—a steep fall, a party schism and eventually a rise to strength—are any indication, the FPÖ could gain traction again at some point if the timing and issues are right. The fact that 100,000 of its voters simply stayed home rather than backing the ÖVP or another party indicates they may be more easily won back.
One afternoon in Vienna’s 20th district, where my boyfriend lives, I happened across the FPÖ’s campaign info stand while running a few errands. Over coffee nearby, Gerhard Haslinger, the FPÖ’s leader in the district, told me he knows and understands there’s a certain level of disappointment with his party and predicted, correctly, that many supporters would stay home on election day.
But when I asked how the party could rebuild after its expected losses, he said the FPÖ has always been the party that “says exactly what people are experiencing,” especially when that experience isn’t being recognized or respected by other political forces. It will continue to find support among those who are frustrated with the way things are going, he said, whether the continued importance of migration and integration issues or the coming economic fallout from the pandemic.
“People want to let out their frustration,” he told me. “As long as the problems we speak about aren’t correctly handled, the FPÖ will always get stronger again.” The coming months, or perhaps more likely years, will be a test of whether Haslinger’s confidence is warranted.
Top photo: Heinz-Christian Strache speaks at a campaign rally in Vienna’s Viktor-Adler-Markt