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Freedom Party of Austria - FPO

In 2014, Andreas Molzer, a prominent candidate for the Austrian Freedom Party, had to abandon his European Parliament bid after decrying Europe's future as a "conglomerate of negroes," but the party won 20 percent of the 25 May 2014 vote, compared to 7.3 percent four years ago.

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party said on 18 May 2019 he was stepping down and would be replaced by Transport Minister Norbert Hofer after an embarrassing video of him was published by German media. The video was reported by two of Germanys leading newspapers weekly Der Spiegel and newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung purportedly showing a meeting in Ibiza between Strache, another party official and a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. The newspaper reports also said the video appeared to be a sting operation. Strache had headed the party since 2005, bringing it back to mainstream electoral success not seen since it was led by the charismatic Joerg Haider. It secured 26 percent of the vote in 2017s parliamentary election.

Support for groups like the eurosceptic, anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) has been on the rise in European countries that have taken in large numbers of migrants like Germany and Sweden as well as some that have not like France and Britain. Most far-right parties are still far from achieving majority support. The FPO has been in government before, serving as a coalition partner in the early 2000s when it was led by the late Joerg Haider. But whoever wins the presidential election, it is likely to be a new high-water mark for Austria's and Europe's far right, all the more significant for taking place in a prosperous country with comparatively low, albeit rising, unemployment.

The Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs--FPO) was founded in 1956 by Anton Reinthaller, who had served in the Seyss-Inquart national socialist government formed in collaboration with Hitler after the Anschluss in 1938. Anticlerical and pro-German, the FPO was the party of persons who were uncomfortable with the domination of Austrian politics by the "red-black" (socialist-clerical) coalition governments of the SPO and OVP. The party had liberal and nationalist wings, which frequently disagreed over strategy. Although the FPO was not an extremist party, it attracted many former Nazis with its philosophy that Austrians should think of themselves as belonging to a greater German cultural community.

The FPO's stress on nationalism made it an atypical liberal party. Nevertheless, in 1979 the FPO was admitted to Liberal International, the worldwide group of liberal parties. The FPO's ideology emphasized the preservation of individual liberties in the face of the growth of the state's power. The party enthusiastically endorsed free enterprise and individual initiative and opposed a larger role for the state in the ownership of enterprises. The FPO was also against the socialist idea of striving for greater equality between socioeconomic groups.

After Reinthaller's death in 1958, Friedrich Peter became the head of the FPO. Under his leadership, the liberal wing increased its influence, and ties to the SPO were developed. However, the FPO remained a minor party with a limited opposition role in the parliament. Between 1956 and 1983, the FPO's share of the vote stagnated between 5.0 and 7.7 percent. After the election of 1970, the FPO struck a deal with the SPO, which promised electoral reform in exchange for the FPO's support of Kreisky's minority government. The ensuing changes in the electoral laws helped the FPO increase its representation in parliament in subsequent elections, despite the fact that its vote totals did not rise at the same time.

Peter's hope that he could make the FPO attractive to the SPO as a coalition partner was dashed by Kreisky's success in obtaining absolute majorities in the elections of 1971, 1975, and 1979. It was only in 1983, when the SPO lost its majority, that it turned to the FPO to form a government. The FPO's brief three-year experience in power in the SPO-FPO coalition of 1983-86 was mostly frustrating, as the government stumbled from one crisis to the next.

Norbert Steger was FPO party chairman between 1980 and 1986. A member of the party's liberal wing, Steger served as vice chancellor and minister for trade in the SPO-FPO coalition. He was not a charismatic politician, and, as the coalition's troubles mounted, he began to lose support among the party's rank and file. At an FPO convention in the spring of 1986, Joerg Haider, leader of the Carinthian branch of the party, launched a successful coup against Steger and became the new chairman.

Haider, born in 1950, was a handsome, dashing figure whose self-confidence strikes many observers as verging on arrogance. He comes from the nationalist wing of the party and has stirred controversy on many occasions by his remarks about Austria's proper place in the German cultural community. On one occasion in 1988, Haider referred to Austria as "an ideological deformity." Since Haider took control of the FPO in 1986, the party has achieved dramatic gains at the polls in both national and provincial elections. In the March 1989 provincial election in Carinthia, the FPO displaced the OVP as the second strongest party, and Haider was elected governor of the province with votes from the OVP.

This election marked the first time that a provincial governor was not from either of the two major parties. Haider's term as governor was cut short in June 1991 by the controversy unleashed by his remark during a parliamentary debate that the Third Reich's employment policy was a positive model. The OVP and SPO joined together to pass a vote of no confidence against Haider, marking the first time in the history of the Second Republic that a governor was forced to step down. Haider did not allow this setback to create challenges to his leadership of the party. In three provincial elections in the fall of 1991, Haider led the FPO to outstanding showings, proving that Austrian voters were increasingly ready to vote for alternatives to the two major parties.

A less charitable interpretation of the FPO's rise under Haider is that Austrian politics had taken a turn to the right. At times in his career, Haider gave his critics ample reason for accusing him of neo-Nazi tendencies. He frequently pandered to the sentiments of the far right, but his everyday political discourse is more moderate. Haider tailored his remarks to his audiences, and he resorted to the rhetoric of right-wing populism in order to inspire the conservative nationalists in the FPO.

A major element in Haider's prescriptions for Austria was his desire to cut down drastically on the number of foreigners allowed to live in the country. Haider consistently argued that immigration is excessive and is causing serious problems for Austrian citizens in the areas of jobs and housing. Haider's campaign against foreigners was a major reason for the passage of a 1991 law that decreed that foreign workers could not make up more than 10 percent of the work force. In 1993 this ceiling was reduced to 9 percent when a new law, the Resident Alien Law, went into effect. Early in the same year, Haider sponsored a referendum to further tighten the control over the number of foreigners in Austria. Although he got only half of the 800,000 signatures he sought, the language Haider used in his campaign was extreme enough to cause large counterdemonstrations.

The tensions between Haider and the liberal wing of the party caused five FPO members of the Nationalrat to leave the party in early 1993 and form a new party, The Liberal Forum (Das Liberale Forum). Led by the FPO's 1992 presidential candidate, Heide Schmidt, the group won seats in the Upper Austria provincial elections of May 1993. The new party was also recognized by Liberal International, which was expected to expel Haider's FPO from its ranks in 1994 because it advocated policies incompatible with traditional European liberalism.

Despite these setbacks, Haider was expected to remain a formidable force in Austrian politics. His sense for the issues that trouble many voters and his ability to enunciate views too extreme for the larger parties will likely win him a substantial following during the rest of the 1990s as the country struggles to adapt to post-Cold War conditions.

Membership in the FPO was direct (there is no tradition of joining an organization affiliated with the party, as with the SPO). The party's membership grew from 22,000 in 1959 to 40,000 in 1990. The membership-voter ratio declined as the party made dramatic gains at the polls. The FPO's share of the vote in national elections tripled between 1983 and 1990, when it achieved 16.6 percent. The FPO has a strong base of support in the provinces of Carinthia and Salzburg. The party draws much of its support from the middle class, salaried employees, and the self-employed.

More than 60 percent of its voters were under the age of forty-four, and many were well educated. The party had few auxiliary organizations, in comparison with the OVP and the SPO. In addition to an organization for people in business, it had groups for academics, students, and retired persons. The FPO's party structure is decentralized, and provincial organizations play an important role in party affairs. The party chairman, who is elected by the party conference, chooses the party manager and general secretary. The general secretary acts as a liaison between federal leaders and provincial organizations.

Under Haider, the party went from its worst result ever, 5.0% in 1983, to a record 26.9% in 1999, beating the OVP into third by a razor thin 400 vote margin. After that result it the FPO entered into coalition with the OVP. Yet in government it was outmanoeuvred by the more experienced OVP. In joining the government the FPO 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 FPO lost significant support at the 2002 election, falling to 10.0%, losing more than half its support. Haiders party formed another coalition with the OVP 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 partys MPs and all its cabinet ministers leaving the FPO to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria [BZO], which continued the coalition while the FPO went into opposition.

The Carinthian Hypo Alpe Adria was a bank that had expanded too quickly with heavy investments in particular in the Balkans where its activities were backed by Austrian local government guarantees. At the time Carinthia was ruled by the [now deceased] far right Freedom party leader Joerg Haider, who in exchange for guaranteeing the bank used it like his own personal piggy bank to fund voter winning ideas. But before the banks serious problems became apparent Haider had managed to sell it to a German bank owned by the Bavarian government and he famously told people in his southern Austrian province: "Now we are rich."

FPO leadership passed to Heinz-Christian HC Strache, the leader of the partys strong Viennese wing. The FPO performed better than Haiders new party following the split, actually gaining a percentage point of support in 2006. The FPO 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 neighbor though this was subtitled For me, thats 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.

Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer conceded defeat in the Austria's presidential election. He had led over former Green Alexander van der Bellen by a wider margin, before the counting of absentee ballots. The margin of victory was 31,000 votes, out of more than 4.6 million ballots cast, with Van der Bellen winning 50.3 percent. Turnout was 72.7 percent. While 86 percent of working class voters pulled the lever for Hofer, 81 percent with university degrees backed Van der Bellen.

The Euro-skeptic far right Freedom Party's candidate for President, Norbert Hofer, finished first in the 24 April 2016 polls with just more than 35 percent of the vote. Green Party nominee Alexander Van der Bellen finished a distant second with 21 percent, setting the stage for for a runoff election 22 May 2016. Hofer's first place finish, the far right's best showing since 1945, is widely seen as reflecting rising voter alarm over Europe's ongoing migrant influx and dissatisfaction with the European Union role in the crisis. Hofer, deputy leader of the FPO, is known as the gentler face of the party but has only recently become a household name.

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Page last modified: 18-05-2019 18:49:00 ZULU