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UPDATE: Why is support for Austria's far-right FPÖ rising?

Amanda Previdelli
Amanda Previdelli - [email protected]
UPDATE: Why is support for Austria's far-right FPÖ rising?
Juergen Wirth Anderlan, the head Southern Tyrolian Traditional Shooting Federation, speaks during a rally held by Austria's far-right Freedom Party FPOe against the measures taken to curb the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Austria's Freedom party managed to strike a deal that would give it broad powers in the Lower Austria province. It is also leading voter poll preferences for a national election. But why are they so popular now?

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What's happening?

Austria's Freedom Party, the FPÖ, has been steadily climbing in recent polls and getting good results in local and regional elections. In Lower Austria, it managed to strike a coalition deal with the centre-right ÖVP and will now be part of the province government.

It also maintained its the lead in the national polls, with 28 percent of respondents saying they would vote for the party, followed by the centre-left SPÖ (24 percent) and the centre-right ÖVP (21 percent).

The FPÖ peaked at 26 percent in the 2017 national elections, when it became a junior partner in government with the ÖVP. Both parties rode the wave of anti-migration speeches as Europe faced the migrant crisis of 2015-16.

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However, just two years later, the government collapsed when videos of the vice-chancellor and head of FPÖ Heinz-Christian Strache, offering public contracts in exchange for political support surfaced. The scandal was known as Ibizagate and investigations are still ongoing.

At the time, FPÖ dipped in polls and has been in the opposition since then. However, a combination of “short-term memory” among the population and the permanence of controversial topics such as migration benefits the blue party, political experts have told Austrian media.

 

Migration crisis

"The FPÖ has an advantage in the competition on topics. Everything that concerns immigration benefits it (the party)," said politics professor Peter Filzmaier.

In 2015, the ÖVP was able to also ride on the anti-immigration discourse with soon-to-be chancellor Sebastian Kurz. However, current ÖVP leader Karl Nehammer hasn't been able to do the same. 

Firstly, it is not as easy to give inflammatory speeches once you are actually in power, but mainly because any discourse that could be seen as discriminatory or too far-right would put the party in direct confrontation with its more left-leaning junior partner, the Greens.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Who are the asylum seekers trying to settle in Austria?

"The issue is fuelled by riots like the one in Linz, tent debates, rising asylum numbers, and border protection debates. This creates fear", said Christoph Haselmayer, from the poling institute IFDD.

"And plays into the hands of the FPÖ", he added.

ÖVP and SPÖ losing votes

Poll institutes have also seen a transfer of votes to the FPÖ from the ÖVP, which currently leads the country with chancellor Karl Nehammer.

READ ALSO: Is Austria’s Freedom Party a ‘far-right’ party?

Many factors could explain this. One is the numerous corruption scandals that have involved the centre-right ÖVP over the past few years - leading up to the resignation of once-wunderkind Sebastian Kurz, who left politics altogether and denies any corruption allegations. 

What started out as an investigation of alleged corruption by an FPÖ leader became much broader and now leaked chats and conversations expose corruption schemes that involve, in large part, the current government. 

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Another reason for the voter migration was the current government's dealing with the coronavirus pandemic - and the fierce opposition and vaccine scepticism presented by the FPÖ. 

The far-right party was a protagonist among corona-deniers and vaccine sceptics in Austria and gathered support during its weekly demonstrations against any pandemic measures proposed by the federal government. 

At the same time, centre-left SPÖ has also been dropping on polls. The party has not succeeded as placing itself as a viable and strong alternative for the current leading government. To make matters worse, the internal division, with Burgenland governor Hans Peter Doskozil challenging current leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner for head of the party is bringing more attraction to the SPÖ.

READ ALSO: What measures against foreigners is Austria’s far-right trying to take?

How likely is it that the party will govern Austria?

Austria habitually takes voting intention polls, even in non-election years. But, as it stands, Austrians will only head to the polls again to choose a new parliament in 2024, so much can change by then.

The opposition, especially the FPÖ and SPÖ, has been asking for new elections due to the ongoing corruption scandals hitting the government in Austria. However, they have so far failed to gather the necessary majority to call for a new government.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How do Austrians elect their chancellor?

Even if the FPÖ consolidates a lead in voting intentions, it's unlikely it will get a majority. This means it would have to find a coalition partner - which could prove problematic in a scenario where most parties would be unwilling to partner with the far-right. This reluctance, of course, could change, especially as the FPÖ grows and forms local and regional coalitions.

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However, Austria faced strong criticism worldwide when the FPÖ first became junior coalition members in 2017 - the only Western Europe country with a far-right presence in government at the time. Many politicians from left and right could oppose a far-right chancellor.

To make things more complicated, Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen has been critical of the FPÖ and indicated he might refuse to appoint an elected far-right chancellor.

A likely scenario at the moment is that the FPÖ will be a strong opposition force in Parliament while other parties, mainly SPÖ and possibly ÖVP, NEOS, Greens and even the Bier Partei, join in a coalition excluding the far-right.

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