Scandal-hit star of Austrian far-right launches comeback bid

The former beacon of Austria's far-right, former vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, may be under investigation for embezzling more than half a million euros, but that has not deterred his most ardent supporters.

Scandal-hit star of Austrian far-right launches comeback bid
Christian Strache is trying to get his new party Team HC Strache onto Vienna's city council. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP
“He's the only one who's honest,” says Elisabeth Bauer, a 53-year-old chef, sipping a drink at an outdoor Oktoberfest in Vienna organised by Strache's new political party.
Despite vowing to step away from public life after a corruption scandal that triggered the spectacular collapse of the Austrian government last year, Strache is back and running for mayor of Vienna in this Sunday's city elections.
His straight-talking, man-of-the-people image and hardline anti-migration rhetoric made him one of the most successful far-right leaders in Europe. It also propelled him into Bauer's living room, which she says is still
plastered with his posters.
Unconcerned about his youthful flirtation with neo-Nazism, she says Strache fights powerful elites and speaks to working-class citizens like herself on  equal terms.
But for many of the 26 percent of voters who propelled him to the vice-chancellorship in 2017 as head of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), that image was tarnished when a video surfaced in May 2019 in which he appeared to offer state contracts in exchange for campaign money.
In the video, secretly filmed on the Spanish island of Ibiza, Strache tells a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch that the FPOe receives hundreds of thousands of euros in illicit funding and proposes a plot to turn Austria's largest newspaper into an FPOe mouthpiece.
Chanel bags and dog food
The fallout from the video was instant: Strache resigned in disgrace and the government collapsed soon after.
The FPOe threw Strache out and labelled him a traitor, but the damage was done: in the snap elections in the wake of “Ibiza-gate”, the party plummeted to just 16 percent.
Meanwhile, although the investigation into improper party funding was dropped, the public prosecutor and federal police are still investigating Strache for allegedly defrauding the FPOe of more than 580,000 euros ($680,000).
He is accused of billing the party for an array of private expenses by submitting fraudulent receipts, according to several Austrian newspapers with access to case files.
Among those expenses were items as diverse as dog food, his wife's Chanel handbags, drinks served for his daughter's birthday, as well as between 2,000 to 3,000 euros per month for the mobile game Clash of Clans — all despite the
fact he was earning a salary of some 20,000 euros a month.
Strache's lavish lifestyle also included private jet flights to his holiday destinations and — if one report traced to his bodyguard is to be believed — a Viagra-fuelled party with escorts that Strache also claimed as a work-related expense.
All of this means little to uber-fans like Bauer.
“He could have paid it from his savings, couldn't he?” she says.
Vienna comeback?
But the number of those supporters has dwindled.
The Oktoberfest event was a far cry from his last run for Vienna mayor in 2015, when he addressed thousands of cheering, flag-waving fans in front of the city's central St Stephen's Cathedral.
Strache is now trying to get his new party “Team HC Strache – Alliance for Austria” onto Vienna's city council.
But at this event, there was no podium or stage, no bodyguards, and a meagre number of supporters — none of whom wore face masks.   
He declined to be interviewed by AFP, but has denied any accusations of wrongdoing, maintaining he is a victim of an internationally orchestrated smear campaign.
Strache has also previously railed against the press and hostility to the media was in evidence at the Oktoberfest event, with organisers threatening to call the police on journalists for conducting interviews.
While Strache garnered more than 30 percent of the vote in 2015, this time it is not even certain he will clear the 5 percent threshold to get on to Vienna's city council.
Even one of the women at the Oktoberfest event — who didn't want to be named — admitted: “I don't think he'll make it. “But immediately, the ever-loyal Bauer interjected: “He's a fighter — of course he'll make it.”


Austrian far-right kicks out scandal-hit ex-leader

Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) announced on Friday that it has ousted its former leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who was caught in a corruption scandal that saw the party ejected from government in May.

Austrian far-right kicks out scandal-hit ex-leader
Heinz-Christian Strache shortly after announcing a "total withdrawal form public life" in October. Photo: Joe Klamar / AFP
High-profile FPOe leaders called a press conference in which they said “the Strache chapter was being definitively closed” for the party, dogged for months by the fallout from the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal.    
In May sensational hidden-camera footage of Strache emerged which had been filmed on the Spanish island of Ibiza in 2017.
In it Strache appeared to offer public contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch, in return for campaign help.
Fifty-year-old Strache immediately stepped down as party leader but the scandal led to the collapse of the FPOe's coalition government with the centre-right People's Party (OeVP). 
Friday's expulsion is the latest episode in a spectacular fall from grace for Strache, who had led the party into government and became Vice-Chancellor after elections in autumn 2017 in which the party won 26 percent of the vote.
In that administration the FPOe gained control of several high-profile cabinet posts, including the coveted position of interior minister.
But the snap elections called after the Ibiza-gate scandal broke saw the party lose almost 10 points in vote share and the party remains stuck at around 15 percent in the polls.
That disastrous result, along with fresh embarrassing revelations about Strache's alleged abuse of expenses, led to increasing tension between Strache and the party's new leadership.
The latest bout of infighting mirrors splits in previous decades that similarly rocked the party, founded in the 1950s by former Nazis.
Reacting to the party's decision in a video posted on his Facebook page on Friday, Strache said he accepted that his party membership was “history”.
Even though he had announced in October that he would undertake “a total withdrawal from politics and public life”, he said on Friday that the support he had received in recent weeks “has led me to consider a political comeback in 2020”.
On Thursday three FPOe city councillors in Vienna seen as sympathetic to Strache left the party to set up their own grouping, the Alliance for Austria.
There has been persistent speculation that Strache wants to take part in next year's municipal elections in the Austrian capital and he himself referred on Friday to “big, exciting challenges waiting for me in the coming year”.