The atmosphere is cheerful in the beer tent in Linz, the capital of Upper Austria, as the crowd anticipates the May Day speech of Herbert Kickl, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).
Kickl takes the podium. People in traditional clothing rise from their seats, waving small Austrian flags. They applaud and chant his surname as if they all know him as a friend.
For the next 50 minutes, Kickl employs the traditional narrative of the radical right populist. His brief, jovial introduction gives way to a sharper tone. Phrases such as “Us down there against the elites up there” and “Our people first” resound from the stage, each welcomed with enthusiastic clapping. At the end of his oration, he raises his beer and proposes a toast: “May we all have our next drink in front of the Chancellor’s office, celebrating.”
This is not the first time Kickl has laid claim to becoming Austria’s next leader. But this time, both his supporters and his opponents believe it could happen.
The COVID-19 Return of Austria’s Far Right
Three years ago, after 18 months in coalition with the center-right People’s Party, the FPÖ was in a difficult position. In a leaked video from his vacation on the Spanish island of Ibiza, Deputy Chancellor and FPÖ leader Heinz Christian Strache offered lucrative public contracts in return for campaign support to an actor claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.
The “Ibiza Scandal” forced Strache to give up both his Government and party positions. The People’s Party ended the coalition, officially declaring the FPÖ’s Kickl too “right-extremist”, and ordered early elections. The FPÖ lost almost 10% of its vote share and returned to opposition, tagged as a corruption-ridden faction that was not to be taken seriously.
But then the FPÖ righted itself. Norbert Hofer emerged as a calm and agreeable lead candidate, winning sympathy from many in Austrian society. Kickl struck an aggressive, far-right pose to motivate the party’s diehards.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kickl appeared to threaten the dual-personality approach, assailing Government measure to stop the spread of the virus. He promoted conspiracy theories about the infections and then vaccines, positioning the FPÖ as the party of “freedom” fighting for the little person against Government might.
In contrast with other European far-right parties, who limited themselves to criticism of containment measures, the party began spreading disinformation and misinformation. Several members, including Kickl, publicly recommend taking Ivermectin instead of the vaccines. As a result, stocks of the horse dewormer sold out in Austria.
Kickl’s gamble worked. The FPÖ gained support, including from voters who usually would not back the far right. Anti-establishment
elements on the traditional Left joined the FPÖ in large demonstrations in 2021 and 2022, with tens of thousands of protesters blocking Vienna’s city center. Even when Kickl risked anti-semitism, comparing anti-vaccine activists to Jews during the Holocaust during a live TV interview, he was celebrated rather than condemned by many.
Hofer, Kickl’s “good cop” counterpart, was hospitalized in intensive care with COVID-19. He disagreed with the narrative downplaying the severity of the virus, dividing the party. But Kickl prevailed in the power struggle, cementing the FPÖ’s resurgence around his persona.
Meanwhile, support for the Government coalition of the People’s Party and the Greens dropped sharply. The economy struggled amid lockdowns, with the hospitality sector shut for several months. The People’s Party was embroiled in its own corruption scandals, and appeared — in contrast to the FPÖ — to drag its feet in any pursuit of accountability. The situation worsened until Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was forced to resign in October 2021.
When the Government declared that COVID-19 vaccinations would soon be mandatory, the FPÖ took further advantage, aggressively criticizing the measure. They gained the support of more women, who had been under-represented as members.
The Political Landscape in 2023
In December 2021, Karl Nehammer of the People’s Party became Austria’s third Chancellor in three months. He has tried to consolidate his position as a hardline anti-immigrant leader. But the tactic is suspect, only feeding the belief of many that the FPÖ is more capable of shutting Austria’s doors to outsiders.
Nehammer has never won an election and has struggled to put his personal stamp on legislation. He has tried to copied Sebastian Kurz with his aggressive rhetoric; however, he lacks his predecessor’s charisma while failing to distance himself from the corruption that ended Kurz’s career.
Among the opposition, the Socialist Party (SPÖ) should have ideal circumstances for the next election. But it has been embroiled in internal debates over its leadership, losing the trust of many in the population. In early June, lack of trust turned to mockery, when mistakes in a vote count led to the announcement of the “wrong winner” in its leadership contest. The error was only corrected two days later, after a journalist uncovered the faulty tally.
It is still too soon to assess the electoral stance of the “Red Party” — and thus too soon to evaluate if the new SPÖ leader, Andreas Babler, can regain legitimacy and profit from an alternative to the hardline positions of both the People’s Party and FPÖ.
Most polls put the FPÖ in the lead with 27% to 32% of the vote. But the far right faces a significant challenge: supporters of Kickl adore his unconventional and aggressive style, the remainder of Austria dislikes it. Half of the population say they do not trust him. President Alexander van der Bellen is a prominent critic.
Still, the FPÖ has secured positions in the State governments of Salzburg and Upper Austria. In Lower Austria, as the junior partner to the conservative mid-right, they have succeeded in the passage of a series of laws. Pupils are required to speak only German at school; there is a gender ban in official public correspondence; restaurants selling traditional Lower Austrian food receive financial support from the state government; and individuals who violated pandemic containment rules are being reimbursed for penalties.
Other parties are no longer automatically excluding the possibility of a coalition with the “extremists”. And the FPÖ has succeeded in “normalization” to make itself socially acceptable, an achievement still beyond its far-right counterpart AfD in Germany.
Where Now For Austria?
Currently, the Freedom Party leads in polling, benefiting from the waning trust of the Socialists and the People’s Party. But the FPÖ’s “normal” appearance could crack during the electoral campaign. Beyond Kickl’s controversial style, it has leaders such as Udo Landbauer, the party head and Deputy Governor in Lower Austria. In 2018, he faced political disgrace when it was revealed that his fraternity association circulated a songbook with anti-Semitic and Nazi content such as “Turn on the gas, you ancient Germanic people, we will manage the seven million.”
If the election is fought on issues other than immigration, the Freedom Party could be exposed for its fringe positions on other issues. Kickl does not take climate change seriously. The FPÖ has been skeptical of the European Union, taking its hostility farther under Kickl. The leader has derided the EU as a “warmonger for its support of Ukraine” against Russia’s invasion. The FPÖ has demanded a prohibition of same-sex marriages and denounced Pride Month.
The prospect of the FPÖ winning the elections could galvanize many Austrians to vote for an alternative, be it the conservative right or the Socialist Party, as has happened repeatedly in French Presidential elections. Circumstances may intervene: if there is a halt to the Russian aggression in Ukraine or if inflation is stabilized and falls before autumn 2024, the FPÖ could struggle to redefine its position beyond hostility to immigration.
But, even if Kickl does not ascend to the Chancellorship, the FPÖ has already “won” in the wider, perhaps more important political sphere. The People’s Party have adopted increasingly right-wing positions, and are likely to be reliant on the far right to form a governing coalition.
Four years ago, the Freedom Party appeared to have consigned itself to a scandalous past. But now, from the beer tent in Linz to the concert halls in Salzburg to the Ballhausplatz in Vienna, there is the belief that tomorrow belongs to them.