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The Rise of the Freedom Party and the Orbánization of Austria


© APA/Werner Kerschbaumayr


Four years have passed since the Ibiza affair shook Austrian politics to its core as one of the country’s most consequential political scandals of the 21st century. Leaked video footage showing HC Strache, then Vice Chancellor of Austria and chairman of the far-right populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), offering government contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch unveiled the reality of deep-rooted corruption in Austrian politics. As a result, the FPÖ lost a majority of its public support, spiraling into a period of political turmoil for several years. Yet, today, the FPÖ is on track to perhaps win its first-ever general elections in 2024, with current polling predicting a landslide victory for the far-right populists.


The Austrian government’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the current soaring costs of essential goods have clearly fueled distrust in the Austrian political establishment and inspired the Freedom Party’s increasing support. It is evident that a yearning for change and a desire for a strong hand in the face of an uncertain future have paved the way for a popular willingness among the Austrian people to embrace an ‘Orbánization’ of Austria.


It is no secret that the Freedom Party considers Orbán’s Hungary as a role model for Austria. “Let's follow Orbán's example; let's build the fortress Austria!” - Herbert Kickl, the FPÖ’s chairman, said in a speech about illegal migration just earlier this year. Just a few weeks earlier, at the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest, Kickl also praised Hungary’s role in fighting the EU elites’ ‘militaristic’ sanctions against Russia, calling Orbán a “decisive leader at the helm of the state.”


For the FPÖ, Orbán's Hungary, however, is not only a role model for how to conduct conservative politics but also for the role of the judiciary and the media in Austria. The 2019 Ibiza affair is the perfect proof of the latter. When former FPÖ chairman Strache was caught eagerly explaining to a woman he thought to be the niece of a Russian oligarch how she should acquire the Krone Zeitung - one of the most prominent newspapers in Austria - to support the FPÖ, the video did not go down well with the Austrian public. The scandal led to the collapse of the government, and key figures of the Freedom Party, such as Strache, were forced to leave the party or give up their political privileges. Needless to say, the FPÖ’s support crashed for years. In the 2019 snap general elections, the FPÖ merely managed to secure 16.7% of the total valid votes (compared to 26% in 2017). From 2019 to 2021, the FPÖ lost, on average, between one-third and one-half of its voter base in all five state parliamentary elections. The decline was particularly stark in Austria’s capital, Vienna, where the party's electoral support plummeted from 30.8% in 2015 to a mere 7.1% in 2020.


However, in 2022, the FPÖ's fortunes began to shift. For the first time in years, the party started gaining popularity again, beginning with the state parliamentary election in Tyrol. The FPÖ went on to increase its vote share by one-third on average in the following major elections, marking the party’s best-ever performances in Lower Austria (24.19%) and Salzburg (25.75%). Current polling suggests that the FPÖ could even win the general elections with 29% of votes for the first time in history if elections were held now. So, what constitutes the FPÖ’s current success?


Since the FPÖ’s official founding in 1955, the party has run on a campaign of Austrian nationalism, strict immigration policies, far-right extremist sentiments, and populist rhetoric. The FPÖ has been involved in countless scandals and accused by many of being fascist, racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic. Furthermore, the party has been shown on many occasions to have close ties to neo-Nazi circles and other far-right movements.


Nevertheless, the FPÖ is one of the most established political forces in Austria, with a particularly strong appeal among young, less-educated men. According to the SORA Institute, 40% of FPÖ supporters are ideologically committed ‘core voters’, while the majority of the party’s followers vote FPÖ out of protest. It is precisely these protest voters who have made the current success of the FPÖ possible. In recent years, the party has managed to attract various new groups of voters and capitalize on two particular societal concerns: distrust in the Austrian establishment parties and people’s fear for their future due to the current inflation.


While the Ibiza affair undeniably had a negative effect on the FPÖ’s reputation, it has also fueled a broader sense of distrust in Austrian politics that, over the years, the FPÖ has been able to capitalize on. This skepticism has been further exacerbated by other political parties - especially the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) - who have also been involved in various scandals in recent years.


At the same time, the Austrian population's dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overstated. Over 25% of Austrians were very dissatisfied with the government's measures to combat the pandemic, with many perceiving them as exaggerated, paternalistic, and quasi-dictatorial. This frustration played directly into the hands of FPÖ politicians, who are skillfully exploiting it. The populist party is reaping the benefits of FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl's narrative of ‘us down here against them up there.’ The FPÖ consistently presents itself as the party of the people - and it does so with success. Such a self-presentation hits the contemporary political zeitgeist: only 34% of Austrians believe that the current political system is functioning well.


At the same time, economic insecurity and the rising costs of essential goods lead many to yearn for a simple answer to their worries and a strong hand to solve their problems. More people than ever wish for a ‘strong leader.’ Around 20% of Austrians want an unapologetic leader who does not care about the outcome of elections and instead directly addresses citizens' concerns. Only 46% of the population clearly rejects this notion. Paradoxically, even those who currently lean towards authoritarianism still consider democracy to be the best form of government. The fact that authoritarian thinking is no longer seen as obviously contrary to democratic values only highlights how much the FPÖ with its far-right, conservative agenda has become socially accepted.


The growing popularity of the FPÖ due to a distrust in the political establishment and people’s general fear for their future highlights how illiberal politics is becoming increasingly mainstream in Austria. This means that the FPÖ is resonating with the Austrian public despite, and not necessarily because, of its far-right extremist history and policies. Ultimately, voting for the FPÖ is seen as a viable alternative to electing other political parties, even if that entails the further ‘Orbánization’ of Austria. It is yet to be seen what that means for Austria’s future.


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