Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Austria’s most notorious party was founded in 1955 but can date its roots back to 1848. On its founding the FPÖ’s ideology was a blend of a pan-German nationalist and liberal influences in what was known as ‘national liberalism’. The party was Austria’s perpetual third party and small but only opposition party for most of its history, and the liberal faction was generally dominant over the nationalist faction. In 1983 the party entered into coalition with the SPÖ. That same year, the party right-winger Jӧrg Haider became leader of the party’s powerful Carinthian branch. A struggle broke out between Haider, representing the party’s more conservative wing, and its liberal leadership, which Haider won. Haider began the process of remaking the party in his own image, and the party lost its affliation to the Liberal International in 1993. That same year the liberal faction formed a new party, the Liberal Forum.
Haider was a controversial figure, fond of xenophobic, populist and radically anti-system rhetoric. He described Islam as “opposed to our Western values”, visited Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq War and commented that the Nazis had a “proper employment policy” unlike the Austrian government. Yet he was also extremely charismatic, and he was able to build up a strong protest vote from even relatively moderate voters opposed to the Proporz system and the dominance of the ‘SPÖVP’. He was able to become the Governor of the Austrian state of Carinthia, which became the party’s heartland. Under Haider, the party went from its worst result ever, 5.0% in 1983, to a record 26.9% in 1999, beating the ÖVP into third by a razor thin 400 vote margin.
After that result it the FPÖ entered into coalition with the ÖVP. Yet in government it was outmanoeuvred by the more experienced ÖVP. In joining the government the FPÖ also became part of the establishment, essentially undermining its own anti-establishment appeal. Attempted ‘sanctions’ of the Austrian government by the EU only had a counterproductive effect, and they were quietly dropped. The FPÖ lost significant support at the 2002 election, falling to 10.0%, losing more than half its support. Haider’s party formed another coalition with the ÖVP nonetheless, though infighting began to break out between the increasingly more pragmatic leadership (including Haider himself) and the more radical activist base. In 2005 things came to a head, with Haider, the majority of the party’s MPs and all its cabinet ministers leaving the FPÖ to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria, which continued the coalition while the FPÖ went into opposition.
FPÖ leadership passed to Heinz-Christian ‘HC’ Strache, the leader of the party’s strong Viennese wing. The FPÖ performed better than Haider’s new party following the split, actually gaining a percentage point of support in 2006. The FPÖ has returned to a more radical xenophobic, populist rhetoric under Strache with slogans such as ‘Vienna must not become Istanbul’. The party has also recently attempted to highlight social/economic issues. In the 2013 election its slogan was ‘Love thy neighbour’ though this was subtitled ‘For me, that’s our Austrians’.
The party is particularly strong with young men. Exit polling in 2013 showed the party winning 32% support with men under 29, making it the largest party with this group. Only 10% of women in this age group voted for the party, however.
In the run-up to last year’s election the party was polling in some polls in first place, but was hit by a mix of corruption scandals, new competition in the right-populist space in the form of Team Stronach, and comments by Strache comparing the treatment of his party to Jews under Nazism.
Nonetheless, the party still won 20.2% of the vote, and in winning 40 seats it came only 7 behind the ÖVP.
The FPÖ is not a member of a European political party, though many of its MEPs are members of the European Alliance for Freedom group. The party may cooperate with the French Front National’s plans for a new far-right group in the next parliament. It was also a member of the far-right Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty in the last parliament.