BAD KLEINKIRCHHEIM, Austria — On a recent Saturday morning in September, my view looked like it had been pulled directly from a postcard: the sun shone down out of a blue sky flecked with fluffy white clouds, illuminating vivid green pastures and the towering mountains that framed the valleys below in Austria’s Carinthia region.
As I sipped my tea in the crisp mountain air—unlike virtually all the locals present, I thought 10:30 a.m. was still a bit too early to order a beer or schnaps—I heard a haphazard chorus of bells approaching. A stream of several dozen cows, many sporting massive bells around their necks, meandered down the hill toward the paddock where a crowd had begun to gather. Lederhosen-wearing young men would soon corral them into pens and adorn them with elaborate headdresses, then march them down the hill with long herding sticks. This was an Almabtrieb, the annual traditional ceremony in which the local cows leave the mountain pastures they’ve grazed all summer and come back down to their farms in Bad Kleinkirchheim, the town of about 1,700 that lies below.
I had come back to Austria to report on the lead-up to the Sept. 29 elections, triggered after a leaked video and the ensuing scandal brought down the country’s government back in May. That government, a coalition between Sebastian Kurz’s center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), was perhaps the highest-profile experiment in governing with a far-right party in Europe. The so-called Ibiza scandal, in which ex-FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache offered state contracts in exchange for campaign help in a secret meeting on the eponymous Spanish island, ended that trial quite suddenly, forcing Strache and another involved FPÖ politician to resign.
But despite such a massive scandal, the FPÖ has suffered relatively little at the polls, and there’s even a chance it may end up back in government again with Kurz. The party’s support in May’s European Parliament elections dropped down to 17.2 percent, but seems to have recovered over the summer: Two weeks before election day, the FPÖ is polling at around 20 percent, only a percentage point lower than its average just before the Ibiza story broke (although still 6 points lower than its result in the 2017 national elections). And a poll conducted in early September suggests three quarters of FPÖ voters are “very sure” they’ll cast their ballots for the party—more than any other party.
Just like President Donald Trump back home in the United States, whose myriad scandals have done little to chip away at his voter base, the FPÖ seems to have been only minimally harmed by Strache’s escapades in Ibiza. After exploring the party’s rhetoric and communication strategies immediately after the government collapse, I came back to Austria ahead of this fall’s elections to understand why it was so seemingly resilient in the face of scandal.
The Almabtrieb in Bad Kleinkirchheim, a decidedly apolitical event, may on its face seem like a strange destination for someone writing explicitly about the campaign and the FPÖ’s voter base. But the annual manifestation of this generations-long tradition actually has a great deal to do with politics at its core—as a representation of the sort of Austrian identity, values and Heimat (a German word that most closely translates to “homeland” or “home”) the FPÖ often vows to protect.
“There’s love for our homeland, there’s faith in our homeland, there’s patriotism in the air, my friends!” ex-Interior Minister Herbert Kickl—who himself grew up in Carinthia, just one town over from Bad Kleinkirchheim—told the crowd at the party’s election kickoff event earlier this month. Before the speeches that day, a band played Immer Wieder Österreich (“Always Austria”), an ever-present part of the soundtrack at FPÖ events; supporters waved small paper Austrian flags as they cheered for Kickl and party leader Norbert Hofer. And projected on a massive screen behind Kickl was an image of him in front of an Alpine scene much like the one I saw in person in Bad Kleinkirchheim. The tagline across the bottom of the image read, “Someone Who Protects our Homeland.”
That message seems to resonate fairly well in Carinthia, a traditional stronghold for the party: in the 2017 national elections, the FPÖ won 31.8 percent of the vote here, and an even higher 37.9 percent in Bad Kleinkirchheim. As the cows marched into the festival grounds down in town during the Almabtrieb, I asked Andreas, a 33-year-old FPÖ supporter who’s lived there his whole life, what issues have most affected his decision to vote for the party.
“As you can see here today, our culture is an important topic,” he said, gesturing to the celebration around him. “I think that probably deserves more attention in our politics.”
Carinthia, a mountainous region on Austria’s southern border with Slovenia and Italy, has a special importance in the history of the modern FPÖ, which is part of why I wanted to spend time there: it was the political home of Jörg Haider, the party leader who in the mid-1980s transformed it from a right-liberal party to the right-wing, anti-immigration force it is today.
An extremely charismatic politician whose rhetoric laid the groundwork for the FPÖ and other modern European right-wing parties, Haider served as governor of Carinthia twice: first from 1989 to 1991 and again from 1999 to his death in 2008. The region was always closely affiliated with Haider politically, to the point that it has retained its reputation as a traditional FPÖ stronghold—even as the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) have more recently overtaken it in state-level politics.
Within the FPÖ, the Haider legacy is more complicated than just of a beloved founder: After intense infighting, he split from the party in 2005 to form his own new movement. That internal struggle, combined with Haider’s departure, caused the FPÖ’s support to drop sharply from 27 percent in the 1999 elections to just 10 percent in 2002 and 11 percent in 2006. (Strache, the now-ex party leader implicated in the Ibiza scandal, took over after Haider’s departure and, with the help of Kickl as general secretary, rebuilt the party.)
But after Haider’s death in a car crash in the fall of 2008, he took on an almost holy status among some FPÖ supporters. Just 5 miles outside Klagenfurt, Carinthia’s capital city, a memorial to him still stands at the site of his accident; people sometimes make pilgrimages there, as well as to the bar in Klagenfurt in which he was last seen, drinking shortly before his death. Although Haider was speeding and drunk at the time of the crash—his blood alcohol count was nearly four times the legal limit—some still ardently insist he was murdered because he was becoming too powerful. Conspiracy theorists blame various outside actors—most frequently Israeli security services—for causing the crash.
Haider’s most obvious impact on today’s FPÖ is of course that he’s the one who first brought many of its core voters on board: Ask someone over 50 today why they originally began voting for the party and nearly everyone will say it’s because of him.
But more than just turning the party into the anti-immigration, Austrian-values force it is today, Haider was a brilliant rhetorician whose framing and deflection tactics are still a central part of the FPÖ’s strategy. In her book The Politics of Fear, Ruth Wodak, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University and the University of Vienna who focuses on far-right rhetoric, describes Haider as a “characteristic and clever demagogue,” saying that the messaging of populist right-wing parties across Europe today is proof of “the Haiderization of politics.”
“Haider’s performance, style, rhetoric and ideologies have become the metonymic symbol of such parties’ success across Europe,” she writes. “Indeed, the FPÖ has paved the way for the dissemination of a new, frequently coded xenophobic, racist and antisemitic, exclusionary and anti-elitist politics since 1989 and the fall of the so-called Iron Curtain.”
When I met Wodak for coffee in Vienna one morning, she explained what that means in terms of party messaging: that the FPÖ purports to be the only party that can truly represent the needs of the common Austrian, the only one that actually voices people’s opinions out loud, and that it represents Austrian values and traditions against the influence of foreign cultures and religions. “The legacy of ‘We can talk like the people talk,’ ‘We dare say what everybody thinks’… that works very well,” she said.
Haider’s message wasn’t specifically anti-Islam or anti-Muslim, as the party explicitly is today; he was more broadly anti-foreigner, arguing for the regular Austrians and against anything that affects or pollutes their culture. As governor of Carinthia, for example, he led the charge against accommodations for the region’s Slovene minority. When the country’s constitutional court ruled dual-language signage necessary in parts of the state with a significant Slovene population, Haider personally moved one town sign several meters so it could remain just in German. (He afterward compared himself to Jesus moving the stone away from his tomb, bringing down the ire of the Roman Catholic Church.)
“Jörg Haider played this ‘victim role’ well,” Markus Keschmann, a political consultant who ran the ÖVP’s most recent state election campaign in Carinthia, told me. “He was close to the people and offered simple solutions—a prime example for successful populist politics.” (The problem, Keschmann noted, is that those “simple solutions” resulted in debt and scandal for the state—issues it still struggles with today.)
That appeal to protecting Austrian culture and tradition, combined with a consistent portrayal of the party as a force for good fighting against those who would unfairly discount it, formed the basis of the FPÖ’s core appeal to voters under Haider—and remains an integral part of its message today.
In its rhetoric, the FPÖ’s message has always been that the elites and the establishment are out to get it because it’s the only party telling hard truths about the direction of the country.
That those rhetorical strategies are still very visible in the party today is no surprise: Kickl, the polarizing ex-interior minister and one of two top candidates for the FPÖ this fall, was Haider’s speechwriter at the time and is very much his rhetorical successor today. Haider, for example, used to campaign on the slogan “Einer, der unsere Sprache spricht” (“Someone who speaks our language”); this fall, campaign posters of Kickl feature the exact same slogan. (Interestingly enough, so do Kurz’s.) And after the Ibiza scandal ousted him from the Interior Ministry, Kickl posted on social media with the slogan “Sie sind gegen ihn, weil er für Euch ist” (“They’re against him because he’s for you”)—another Haider campaign tagline.
That continuity in rhetoric and indeed even in top personnel helps explain why the FPÖ reacted the way it did to the Ibiza scandal—and also why many of its voters have not abandoned it in the months since. In his resignation speech in May the day after the video was released, Strache immediately declared he had been the victim of a “political assassination,” raising questions about who was behind the video.
The message played to exactly the same kind of rhetoric Haider always espoused: The elites and the establishment are out to get the FPÖ because it’s the only party telling hard truths about the direction of the country. The argument that Strache was set up by political enemies because the party had become too powerful, in other words, fits along the same lines as believing Haider’s death was no accident.
More than just Strache himself, the party as a whole has also positioned itself as a victim of the entire situation. The way leaders like Hofer and Kickl now tell it, the FPÖ was a faithful member of the coalition that was unfairly pushed out even though the politicians implicated in the Ibiza scandal had already resigned. Indeed, the FPÖ has explicitly campaigned on its desire for another coalition with Kurz’s ÖVP: “Continue the Coalition for Our Homeland,” many of its election posters featuring Hofer read.
In this fall’s campaign, the party has balanced its message between two very different personas, Hofer and Kickl. Hofer, the newly elected party leader who won 46 percent of the vote in Austria’s 2016 presidential election, telegraphs moderation to help win back FPÖ voters who might have been disappointed by Ibiza. Meanwhile Kickl, the firebrand representation of the party’s hardline immigration politics, dishes out red meat on the campaign trail and portrays the party as a victim of the establishment.
“Hofer is the friendly face of the FPÖ: He wants to show that he’s the one you can form a coalition with, the one you can partner with,” said Jakob-Moritz Eberl, a researcher at the University of Vienna and a member of the Austrian National Election Study. “And then there’s Herbert Kickl, who’s kind of the bulldog… He has to signal to the core of the FPÖ, maybe even more to the right or right-extreme voters, that they are still being heard.”
Even more than mimicking Haider’s rhetoric, Kickl has begun to take on that same near-hero status in many FPÖ supporters’ minds: In Pasching, several of those I spoke with said he was “the best interior minister” Austria has ever had, or even the best politician the country’s ever seen. Eberl’s description of Kickl as a bulldog is apt, to which Kickl himself has made reference: he told the crowd in Pasching that he wouldn’t be constrained by the “muzzle of political correctness”: “I’ll snap through it, then I’ll bite—and that will hurt.”
That campaign kickoff at a glitzy shopping center in Pasching, a suburb of the Upper Austrian city of Linz, was a great way for me to see FPÖ leaders’ rhetorical strategies in action—and to talk to its voters to understand how they rationalized their continued support for the party. The people who showed up to such an event on a rainy Saturday morning were definitely not the ones who were on the fence about the FPÖ; these were the die-hard supporters, and it was they I wanted to speak with.
In my conversations with more than a dozen supporters, I heard a mix of explanations for why they saw the Ibiza scandal as a nonfactor. Some blamed Ibiza on the media’s need for drama, for example, or suggested the video was leaked because of establishment actors’ desire to torpedo the FPÖ.
Ibiza “was really pushed by the media and a great topic they could sell,” Christoph Kirchmeier, a local FPÖ politician from the Upper Austrian town of Kirchberg-Thening, told me before the speeches. “Of course there will be a certain group of voters who will go, but on the whole it hasn’t really done any damage.”
Günther, a middle-aged man, told me as his wife nodded next to him that he’s very happy with the party’s work in the government. “The FPÖ has worked hard and done a lot in the last year and a half,” he said. “And especially for Austrian citizens: so they feel more secure, so they feel good, so their worries don’t grow.”
Both said they believed the Ibiza video was leaked because the political establishment was nervous about the FPÖ’s influence: “I think they’ve been exploited,” he said. (His wife chimed in here, saying she thought German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union were behind the video’s release.)
Others told me it’s not a big deal because all politicians do such things, it’s just Strache who got caught; some believe he made a mistake, but said the problem was solved when he left the party and that they still believe in the FPÖ’s overall message.
“He stepped down—it was definitely bad for us, for the party,” said Brigitta Aner, a 67-year-old from near Linz. “But you can’t demonize the entire party [because of him]. The policies are the same, the government program is the same even without Strache.”
When I asked Erwin, a 57-year-old from Linz, whether he’d thought twice about the FPÖ after Ibiza, he said no: “Exactly the opposite: It actually proves what always happens in the background,” he told me. “If you look deeper, this is everyday stuff in all political parties.”
Indeed, he added, Strache was just doing what every other party leader does in a world where all of them need money to win campaigns. “Money rules the world, we know that… The big firms we have in Austria sponsor the ÖVP most of all, and of course the other parties need to see if they can also get a piece of the cake.”
Michaela, a middle-aged woman who—like many in attendance at the kickoff event—wore traditional Austrian clothing, said she doesn’t pay attention to “the current dirt” in the news. More important, she said, is the party’s overall message: “It’s the only party that can hear me,” she said. “It’s the only party I can vote for.”
With less than two weeks to go until Austrians vote, it’s still an open question whether the FPÖ’s support in opinion polls holds up on election night—something I’ll explore a bit more once results are in on Sept. 29.
But based on my conversations with the party’s supporters and local politicians so far this month, it seems that its core electorate is just as firmly on board as it was before anyone in Austrian politics had uttered the word “Ibiza.”
Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik, a political science professor at the University of Vienna, told me people have found many ways to “rationalize” their continuing loyalty to the FPÖ, from their skepticism of mainstream media to their inherent trust in Strache and the party to their enduring belief in its policies.
“There are lots of strategies for voters to actually maintain their support for the FPÖ as long as the party stays united in its message,” he said. “It’s clear the FPÖ still represents the ideological views of many people in Austria—that hasn’t changed.”