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Austria's far-right FPÖ picks Norbert Hofer

September 14, 2019

Hofer's selection comes as his populist Freedom Party tries to repair its credibility in time for national elections. The party is keen on a fresh coalition, despite jinxing its last partnership with the People's Party.

Norbert Hofer
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/APA/E. Scheriau

Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) on Saturday attempted to brush off the Ibiza video corruption scandal by electing a new moderate leader.

Norbert Hofer secured 98.25% of votes during a poll of members during the party's congress in Graz, the country's second-largest city. His selection comes ahead of national elections on September 29.

In his acceptance speech, the 48-year-old said he wanted the party to be the strongest force in Austrian politics.

"I do not compete as a party leader for a party that is permanently satisfied with second or third place," the former transport minister said.

Hofer replaces Heinz-Christian Strache, who resigned as party leader and Austria's vice-chancellor in May after being allegedly caught on secret video offering public contracts to a Russian businesswoman in return for political support.

Video Scandal: Election Blow for Europe's Far-Right?

Read more: Austria's FPÖ Freedom Party: A turbulent history

The scandal led to the fall of the Austrian government after Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pulled the plug on a 19-month coalition between his center-right People's Party (ÖVP) and the populist FPÖ.

FPÖs friendly face

Hofer, who narrowly lost out to Alexander Van der Bellen to the country's figurehead presidency, has gained a reputation as the party's friendly face.

His election marks a contrast to firebrands Strache and former interior minister Herbert Kickl.

However, many political observers doubt whether he will adopt a more moderate approach, especially as the FPÖ could move into opposition after the election.

"In that case, Hofer will probably also strike hard," political scientist Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerle told Germany's DPA news agency.

Read more: How dangerous are Austria's far-right hipsters?

Hofer has declared he wants to "put his stamp" on the party and see it in government again in a renewed coalition with the ÖVP.

Familiar election tactics

The far-right party has deployed slick posters that show him with the slogan "loyal to the homeland," while at the same time stepping up its anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric.

Hofer, who wrote the FPÖ's election manifesto, also hailed his "long-term friendship" with Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a visit to Budapest this week.

Read more: Hitler's birthplace: Legal battle finally ends

His party has quickly regained much of the support lost following the Ibiza scandal after its leaders claimed the hidden camera footage, from 2017, was a setup.

However, with less than two weeks until the election, polls suggest as many as a third of voters remain undecided.

An ÖVP coalition with the second-placed Social Democrats remains unlikely, meaning that the fresh-faced far-right party could, once again, become junior alliance partners.

Alternatively, the ÖVP may choose to partner with the Liberals and/or Greens.

Austria: The Political Scandal

mm/rc (AFP, dpa)