VIENNA, Austria — It was a cloudy, unseasonably chilly Thursday evening when I found myself shuffling through a crowd of thousands gathered at the central Ballhausplatz, all eagerly awaiting a late-90s/early-2000s Dutch dance-pop sensation called the Vengaboys.
A demonstration-turned-concert to hear the Vengaboys’ annoyingly catchy hit “We’re Going To Ibiza” wasn’t exactly where I’d expected my research on right-wing populism to lead. When I originally planned my trip in early May, it was to examine the ways Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party has been influenced by its older Austrian counterpart, the Freedom Party (FPÖ). Until late last month, the country was governed by a coalition between then-Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz’s center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and the FPÖ, arguably the highest-profile European experiment in a mainstream party governing with the far right.
But it’s been a turbulent month in Austrian politics, and “We’re Going To Ibiza” has become the unofficial anthem for that political chaos. That’s because a leaked video of two top FPÖ politicians at a secret meeting on the Spanish island of Ibiza—hence the Vengaboys—prompted Kurz’s government to collapse in spectacular fashion just a few days after I had booked my train ticket from Berlin. In the video, recorded before elections in 2017, the FPÖ leader (and now ex-vice chancellor) Heinz-Christian Strache and a top party official named Johann Gudenus promised government contracts in exchange for election aid from a woman they believed was the niece of a Russian oligarch.
After the German news outlets Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung released the video, Kurz broke up his coalition with the FPÖ and called for snap elections in the fall. That wasn’t the end of the drama, however: the day before I arrived in town, Kurz himself was ousted from office after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament. A caretaker government took over earlier this month, including Austria’s first female chancellor, the constitutional judge Brigitte Bierlein. (For more on the scandal and its immediate aftermath, see my blog post from last month.)
On that Thursday night in May, the event featuring the Vengaboys—part of a long-running series of weekly demonstrations against Kurz’s government—had taken on the celebratory, carefree feel of a summer music festival. It was the first Thursday since Kurz, the protests’ primary target, was no longer in the Chancellery, after all: Young people stood chatting, cans of beer in hand, or sat playing cards in circles on the grass of the nearby Volksgarten before the Vengaboys appeared.
Amid the crowd’s irreverent and funny signs, one stood out as perhaps emblematic of the feeling among those I talked to: “Woah! We’re Gonna Have A Party,” it read, from the chorus of the Vengaboys song. “Woah! Because Austria Is Free.” Next to that line was an asterisk: “At Least For Now.”
It’s true: Kurz’s experiment in governing with the far right may be over (for now), and the FPÖ may be out of government (for now). But over the course of my conversations in Vienna, I heard very little to suggest the current situation was anything more than an intermezzo between more of the same. In elections to the European Parliament that took place barely a week after the Ibiza video came out, the FPÖ still won 17.2 percent of the vote—a significant drop from its previous position, to be sure, but not as big as one might expect after such a massive scandal. And due to a quirk of Austrian election law, Strache—the ousted FPÖ leader at the center of the scandal—won a seat after 44,750 people cast direct votes for him. (In the end, he decided not to take up the seat; his wife, however will run in Austria’s snap elections this fall, and Strache himself is reportedly already plotting a potential 2020 comeback in Vienna.)
When it comes down to it, the very communication and rhetorical strategies I was here to discuss are the reason the FPÖ (and Strache himself) may come out of the scandal less damaged than they theoretically should be—and why there’s a decent chance Austria may end up with another iteration of the same government it just got rid of.
Unlike in Germany, where the AfD is a relatively new phenomenon, Austria’s far right has been strong for decades. Starting with the rise of the charismatic party leader Jörg Haider in the late 1980s and continuing under Strache in the mid-2000s, the FPÖ has found fairly consistent electoral success by pursuing an anti-immigration, often xenophobic line. Under Strache and Herbert Kickl, the longtime FPÖ general secretary and recent interior minister, its rhetoric has taken on an explicitly anti-Islam tone.
The party is established enough in Austrian politics to serve in several state governments and has even joined the national government twice before: first briefly in the early 1980s together with the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), and more recently in its current form from 2000 to 2005 with Kurz’s ÖVP. When it entered government again for the third time in 2017, the FPÖ won 26 percent of the vote—more than double the AfD’s result just a few weeks earlier in Germany.
It’s no wonder, then, that many in the AfD have looked to their Austrian neighbors for inspiration. Björn Höcke, leader of the AfD’s far-right “wing” and head of the party in the eastern German state of Thuringia, invited the FPÖ politician Elmar Podgorschek to the state parliament last year to speak to party members. Under the title “What the AfD Can Learn From The FPÖ,” he spent 45 minutes explaining his party’s evolution, organization and media strategy—all with an eye to “how the Federal Republic of Germany could look in some years.”
The FPÖ has led the way in the art of intentional provocation, creating outrage and media firestorms that dominate the political conversation.
The FPÖ has “succeeded in positioning itself in the middle of society,” he said. By contrast, the AfD is still being “excluded” by other parties, which prevents it from playing as big a role in policy discussions as it could. “As long as the AfD is left out, participating in government is probably not possible,” he said. Thanking Podgorschek for the input, Höcke said the AfD must “manage” to do what the FPÖ did in a fraction of the time.
During my time in the eastern German city Cottbus earlier this spring, the AfD leader Marianne Spring-Räumschüssel also had high praise for Kurz and his coalition with the FPÖ (which was still in office when we spoke). “The example of Austria shows that eventually there will be a complete shift in the mood of the electorate,” she said, calling Kurz “actually very good” because he has, with the FPÖ, “found a partner that fits him well.”
And when I asked the head of the AfD in Berlin, Georg Pazderski, about his party’s relationship with the FPÖ at a meeting with about 20 other journalists in the AfD’s offices in the capital’s government headquarters this month, he told me the FPÖ’s comparatively long history in Austria can be an example for his own party: “Certainly it’s a role model for the AfD,” he said. “We can see what they did wrong, what they did well and we have to learn from that.”
AfD leaders largely stood behind their Austrian counterparts in the aftermath of the Ibiza scandal, acknowledging the incident was damaging but calling it an isolated affair. “The FPÖ is our sister party and that won’t change,” said Jörg Meuthen, the AfD’s top candidate in the European elections, adding that the FPÖ still has “outstanding people” who weren’t associated with the video.
Kay Gottschalk, a member of the AfD’s national leadership, put it this way: “I still stand with the FPÖ. They paved the way for us and have done great things in Austria.”
After the Ibiza scandal broke, traditional media in Austria and beyond discussed the contents of the video, reported on Strache’s resignation and considered the FPÖ’s fortunes going forward. In another corner of the German-language internet, meanwhile, readers and supporters got an entirely different perspective about what happened.
The far-right Austrian news site Unzensuriert, founded by the FPÖ politician Martin Graf and frequent purveyor of strongly FPÖ-biased articles, immediately questioned whether the video was the result of a conspiracy against the party by various intelligence services. “Is the BVT behind it? Kickl asks explosive questions about the Ibiza video,” one article read, referring to Austria’s domestic intelligence service. The FPÖ’s own media station, FPÖ-TV, posted similar items: One examined what it called Kurz’s “intoxication with power”; another framed the Ibiza scandal as a conspiracy, asking, “Who really profits from this video?”
Posts from such sites are then legitimized and amplified by FPÖ politicians on social media, including Strache himself. Barely three weeks after the scandal, he posted a link to an Unzensuriert article suggesting Kurz had long plotted to break up the coalition. “Interesting!” he wrote. “What did the ÖVP know?” His supporters replied with more than a thousand comments, the vast majority supportive: “A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” one user said of Kurz. “Exactly: Mr. Kurz knew everything already,” another said. “I choose BLUE no matter what anyone else says or thinks,” another wrote, referring to the FPÖ’s main color.
All that reinforced Strache’s suggestion that he was the target of a “political assassination,” moving supporters’ attention away from the video’s content toward questions about its origin. Exploiting such sites, together with party leaders’ significant social media followings—Strache has just under 800,000 Facebook followers, equal to nearly a tenth of Austria’s population—the FPÖ has created an echo chamber in which its supporters can almost exclusively get their information.
“The FPÖ was probably the first populist party in Europe which created their own media,” explained Johannes Hillje, a Berlin-based political strategist. “They were very strong on social networks, they had strong connections with other online publications like Unzensuriert which were pushing the same agenda to create this kind of partisan media universe… all pushing the same message, but not necessarily always with a party logo.”
Austria’s media ecosystem, and the similar one the AfD has built in Germany, make up a big part of Hillje’s focus in Propaganda 4.0, his 2017 book on the AfD’s messaging tactics. Hillje, who ran the Greens’ campaign for the European elections in 2014, confirmed over coffee in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood last month that the AfD has copied the FPÖ in that respect.
The party launched AfD-TV in 2017, calling it an “opportunity to bring our concerns closer to the citizens of our country without distortion and manipulation.” Outside sites such as Politically Incorrect and Junge Freiheit (“Young Freedom”) also publish AfD-friendly stories and highlight negative coverage of refugees and asylum-seekers. The party is ramping its efforts on that front: Just last month, the AfD invited right-wing bloggers and friendly outlets to the Bundestag for its “First Conference for Free Media.”
“It’s actually really hard to draw the boundaries” between party-sponsored media and party-friendly media, said Julian Göpffarth, a German researcher at the London School of Economics who focuses on the AfD in eastern Germany. “You have people associated with the party, and others who are more sort of free entrepreneurs who seem to support the AfD.”
The websites for AfD-TV and FPÖ-TV, the parties’ respective media outfits
More than just adapting the FPÖ’s strategy of creating a like-minded media ecosystem, the AfD is seeking to employ the same sort of rhetorical strategies, whether the exact words they use or the deliberate provocations members stage to portray themselves as victims.
The FPÖ has run pithy, explicitly anti-Islam campaign messages such as Daham Statt Islam (which roughly translates to “The homeland instead of Islam”) and Pummerin Statt Muezzin (a reference to the bells in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and to the person who traditionally delivers the Muslim call to prayer). During the 2017 campaign in Germany, the AfD’s campaign posters echoed that irreverent, attention-grabbing tone: One showed bikini-clad women from behind, saying, “Burqas? We prefer bikinis!” while another featured a pregnant woman’s stomach and the words “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves!”
“Messages that worked before in Austria, they are adapted by the AfD in Germany,” Hillje said. “Sometimes the same message that was printed on a poster by the FPÖ two years ago, you could see today on an AfD poster.”
The FPÖ has also led the way in the art of intentional provocation, creating outrage and media firestorms that dominate the political conversation. Kickl, the ex-interior minister, did that regularly: From his decision to rename refugee processing centers Ausreisezentrum (“departure centers”) to a leaked memo instructing police forces to withhold information from unfriendly media outlets, and his suggestion the European Convention on Human Rights was outdated, Kickl provoked scandal time after time, managing to dictate the topics of public discussion as a result.
“It’s better to trigger a wave of indignation than not to do anything,” Fabian Schmid, a journalist at the Austrian newspaper Der Standard who focuses on the FPÖ, told me over coffee in Vienna’s central 6th district. “Provocations are an important way to be present on social media. That content is then shared by both emotionally activated supporters and outraged political opponents, which makes it seem as if the content is important.”
The strategy creates a messaging problem for other parties, which are often forced to respond to whatever the FPÖ has just said rather than setting their own issue agendas. Andrea Brunner, the deputy general secretary of the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), told me it’s difficult to combat the FPÖ’s simple, emotional appeals with facts and truth.
“It’s quite hard because actually we love to explain, that’s not right, that’s a lie… we explain and explain and explain, and they tell the people what [they] feel,” she elaborated in her office on a sweltering early June afternoon. “It’s about feelings, it’s about what they believe is right. That’s quite hard to go against: some feelings things with explanation and scientific discussions.”
In the case of the Ibiza scandal, Strache immediately played the victim, making it clear he saw the video as a deliberate attempt to harm the FPÖ and remove him from power. The rest of the party quickly jumped on his narrative, as did FPÖ-friendly media online; all of a sudden, the discussion shifted—even outside FPÖ circles—to focus more on the origin of the video. “Everything comes out into the open sooner or later,” Strache wrote on Facebook recently. “Every day, more information comes out about the criminal video action, the perpetrators, the people behind it, the client and possible political entanglements!”
Despite the antagonistic rhetoric from Strache and others toward Kurz since the scandal broke, FPÖ leaders have made it clear they want to be back in government and are open to working with him again. Kickl, the ex-interior minister, wrote on Facebook that it’s “very simple… I personally would still have many positive things to accomplish in the interior ministry.”
Over coffee in Vienna’s old town one afternoon, I asked Markus Keschmann, a Vienna-based political consultant who helped design Kurz’s marketing and communication strategy during the 2017 election, about the possibility of another ÖVP-FPÖ government. He said it’s hard to imagine it working out again—and at the same time also difficult to see another particularly realistic coalition option.
In any case, there would need to be changes for Kurz’s party to agree: “A reboot of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition would only work with a completely reformed FPÖ, and only if it doesn’t include Herbert Kickl,” he said.
That’s partly why, despite the celebratory vibes at the demonstration with the Vengaboys that Thursday night, there was a sense among those who opposed Kurz’s government that recent developments are only temporary—and that the upcoming snap elections, slated for late September, may well bring another version of the same government.
Michaela Moser, one of the organizers of the weekly demonstrations, told me that’s part of the idea behind their new slogan Alles Muss Anders (“Everything Needs To Be Different”). Standing behind the stage, looking at me through her bright red glasses as she prepared for the event to begin, Moser said the protests will continue because its organizers and supporters realize ousting Kurz and the FPÖ was just the beginning.
“We just want to get across that, okay, this previous government is gone, but all the legislation they did, all the measures they took… these are still there,” she said. “So we really need to change the politics, it’s not enough to just change people. We want something deeper, something more profound.”
I had first met Moser back in February, while I was working on a story about the FPÖ’s Kickl. At the time, Thursday nights were a way to push back and register popular displeasure with a government many believed was pursuing the wrong course. As we spoke again in May, it struck me that her tone describing the current political situation wasn’t so different than what I’d heard in February. Those who turn out on Thursday evenings still believe the country is on the wrong track broadly, even if leadership at the top has changed (for the time being, at least).
“Of course, a whole country will not change overnight. We are not that naive,” she told me. “But we will just keep on fighting—and if there’s some improvement toward some politics that are less sexist, less racist, less poverty-producing, then it is a positive step.”
Moser’s mood was reflected by people I spoke with in the crowd. Krystyna Palczynska, 38, and Julia Schindelar, 38, both sipping Gösser beers as we chatted, were largely there because they wanted to see the Vengaboys; although they were no fans of Kurz’s government, both work late enough on Thursday nights that they’d been unable to attend the protests in the past. (This Thursday, however, was a federal holiday.)
When I asked what they hoped to see from the new government, both said they wanted politics to be less indebted to party loyalty. Neither was optimistic that could actually happen, however. “Theoretically things need to change, but probably in reality not much will change,” Palczynska told me. “The MPs need to actually vote independently, but instead they always just vote the party line.”
As I spoke with another protest-goer, a woman overheard our conversation and came up to briefly offer her input: “Things are more exciting. Not better, but more exciting.”
Exciting certainly isn’t an understatement, at least for this ICWA fellow and observer of right-wing populist parties. This fall’s elections will be a test case in the durability of populist far-right parties’ base: will the FPÖ’s core voters stand by the party even after such a massive (and well-documented) scandal? Based on those 44,750 votes for Strache in the European elections and the predictions of most people I spoke with, it seems likely that many will (although that’s a question I hope to explore further in FPÖ strongholds this fall).
“It’s not that all the FPÖ voters now are angry with Strache because he’s a supercriminal or whatever,” Jakob-Moritz Eberl, a researcher at the University of Vienna and a member of Austria’s National Election Study, explained over coffee near the university one afternoon. “What they see is a conspiracy from the elites, the elite party system, against them… they seem to believe him, or want to believe him.”