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The rise, fall, and rise again of Austria's far-right

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The rise, fall, and rise again of Austria's far-right
Campaign poster for Norbert Hofer. Photo: Paul Gillingwater
08:47 CET+01:00
Norbert Hofer could become the European Union's first far-right head of state in Austria's presidential election re-run on Sunday.

His popular Freedom Party (FPÖ), once led by a former SS officer, has moved from the fringes to the centre of power over the past 60 years.

Founded by ex-Nazis

Founded in 1956, the FPÖ emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched in the aftermath of World War II by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights.

The party, whose first chief was an ex-officer from the Waffen SS, also drew pan-Germanists and liberals fed up with the ruling centrist establishment.

Over the decades, the FPÖ increasingly encroached upon the territory of the two main parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservative People's Party (ÖVP).

Between them, these two main parties dominated Austrian politics since 1945 until their presidential candidates were both knocked out of a disastrous first round in April.

Liberal interlude

In the early 1980s, the FPÖ was briefly taken over by liberals. Under their leadership, the FPÖ made its first entry onto the national stage in 1983 when it formed a coalition government with SPÖ Chancellor Fred Sinowatz.

But FPÖ supporters swiftly punished the liberal swing, with the party obtaining a mere 1.2 percent at legislative polls in 1986 -- its worst ever result to date.

The Haider era

Just as the FPÖ hit rock bottom, in swept Jörg Haider, the young charismatic son of a former Nazi party official in 1996.

Under his flamboyant leadership, the party reinvented itself as a formidable populist force thriving on xenophobic and anti-European slogans.

Haider became governor of Carinthia state in 1989 but was forced to resign shortly afterwards for praising the Third Reich's "employment policy".

A decade later, the media-savvy orator was re-elected and remained at the state's helm until he died in a drink-driving car accident in 2008.

Haider's dubious legacy in Carinthia is still felt today. The small state only narrowly averted bankruptcy earlier this year over debts stemming from a high-risk expansion under Haider's governorship.

Politically, Haider managed to boost support for the FPÖ six-fold, earning it second place in 1999 elections with nearly 27 percent behind the Social Democrats.

After talks with the SPÖ collapsed, the far-right formed a government with the ÖVP in 2000. The coalition sparked international protests and turned the country into an EU pariah.

Enter Strache

Five years of power-sharing with the conservatives took a heavy toll on the FPÖ, with its support in opinion polls dipping to single digits in the mid-2000s.

Haider tried to remedy the situation by purging the party's extremist elements, but saw himself increasingly pushed into a corner.

He eventually left to create a new movement, clearing the path for the FPÖ's new leader in 2005 -- ambitious dental technician Heinz-Christian Strache.

The ex-member of a radical student fraternity had not been impressed with Haider's more moderate approach and began to re-introduce openly racist slogans.

When the approach failed to translate into votes, Hofer and FPÖ strategist Herbert Kickl persuaded Strache to adopt a less offensive strategy.

Polishing the image

Taking a leaf from the success of Marine Le Pen's makeover of the far-right National Front in France, Strache toned down his aggressive rhetoric and focused on social welfare and purchasing power as the economic crisis hit in 2008.

At the same time, the FPÖ also began distancing itself from neo-Nazi, racist and anti-Semitic comments of some of its most prominent members.

As a result, the party has once again become a sharp-toothed political machine and tipped to win the scheduled 2018 election.

While Hofer has steered clear of incendiary rhetoric during his presidential campaign, he remains a true-blue far-right proponent who wants a "Europe of fatherlands" and says "Islam is not a part of Austria".

By Philippe Schwab

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