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ANALYSIS: History repeating in Austria? Not so fast

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ANALYSIS: History repeating in Austria? Not so fast
Heinz-Christian Strache of the FPÖ waits for the start of his first parliament session as Vice-Chancellor in Vienna on December 20th. Photo: AFP
14:03 CET+01:00
The new coalition in Austria is not simply a re-enactment of the 2000 coalition between conservatives and the far-right, and that makes it far more dangerous, argues Itay Lotem, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Westminster.

As clichés go, one of the most resistant claims of all is that “history repeats itself”. As teenagers, many of us used it to show wisdom beyond our years, or at least to make sure our A-Level history essays got the conclusion they deserved. And yet it is just a cliché. While events follow certain patterns and structures, history does not repeat itself. The same applies to the latest blast from the past in Austria, the European harbinger of far-right politics. A new coalition government between the conservative ÖVP and the far-right FPÖ triggers comparisons with the past, both as a “return of fascism” and a “repeat” of the last such coalition in 2000. 

Particularly right now, as 2017 seems to have been all about the rise of the far-right in Europe, the comparison with 2000 seems encouraging. Back then, the EU took steps to boycott the new government, which it perceived as the first far-right coalition in post-war Western Europe. At the same time, the government's dysfunctionality led to its collapse within two years, the ensuing elections resulted in a big win for the ÖVP and a split of the far-right party. 

This time, however, there is every reason to believe the coalition will survive a full term. As another cliché goes, 2017 is not 2000. The last two decades have witnessed changes in the ways far-right parties operate, and Austria is a case in point. Internal party changes, national developments and the transformation of European politics all point out that this coalition will be far more stable than its predecessor. 

Internally, the FPÖ has learnt from its own mistakes. Back in the 1999 elections, it was propelled to electoral victory by the new adoption of populism that blurred its Nazi continuities and by the flamboyant personality of Jörg Haider, the then head of party. Haider was a gifted campaigner who harnessed protest votes to support the FPÖ as a pure opposition party. In government, however, the party lacked the most basic parliamentary experience. The FPÖ not only cracked under the strain of internal egos and competitions, it also got easily outmanoeuvred by its more experienced partners. 

Ever since, however, the FPÖ has gained experience on state level and learned from its mistakes. This time around, it campaigned as a party of government. Furthermore, the coalition will provide less opportunities for inner-party strife. In 2000, Haider, the face of the party, was left outside the government and became increasingly marginalised and embittered. Today, the party's two leading men, Heinz Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer, will both participate in the government, thus creating a more “parliamentary” movement and minimising the effect of Strache's personality cult. 

On a national level, the FPÖ performance is no longer a shock victory, but a long expected result. The big winner of these elections was the ÖVP, which gained from Sebastian Kurz's personal campaigning over the party's head. The young Chancellor was responsible for an ÖVP victory and an underperformance of the FPÖ. He gained support through a nativist platform, which always included a coalition with the far-right. While the aftermath of the 1999 elections saw a proliferation of anti-FPÖ demonstrations, Austrian civil society greeted this coalition with a shrug. After all, this was what people voted for. 

Internationally, there is no reason to expect the EU to initiate any pressure comparable to the 2000 boycott. Despite impassioned calls to do so on some Western European Left-leaning journals, the new coalition with the far-right will not be the exception it was in 2000. Despite the specificities of Austrian continuities to Nazism, the EU will have a hard time singling out an Austrian government in the current climate. 

For once, the Austrian coalition is predicted to be far more moderate than the current majorities of the Polish and Hungarian parliaments. Moreover, while the Austrian participation of a far-right party in power is indeed exceptional for the Western-European context, it is doubtful whether its character will be any different to the Danish government's reliance on the far-right, the Dutch government's appropriation of the far-right's nativism or the British government's Brexiteering touch. 

This time around the FPÖ is far better prepared for government than in 2000 and is unlikely to implode under pressure. For outside observers, the FPÖ's performance matters to see what happens to a far-right party that sets realistic expectations and participates in government as a junior coalition partner. For once, how much influence will the party exert over policy making (beyond its ability to toxify the public discourse)? When the FPÖ caves in to compromise on economic issues, how much understanding will its electorate show? And lastly, will an anti-establishment party be able to sustain its position after a term as junior member of the, well, establishment? 

Indeed, while history never repeats itself, Austria can be counted on to provide insights into the working of the far-right. To find adequate means to counter its latest successes, following developments in this small Alpine country might be just the place to start. As the far-right re-invents itself into parties of government rather than pure protest, it becomes ever more pressing to devise better strategies to fight the roots that help it grow in so many places.

Dr Itay Lotem is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Languages and Culture at the University of Westminster in the UK.

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