Austria′s Freedom Party is ′here to stay′ after strong election results | News | DW | 16.10.2017
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Austria's Freedom Party is 'here to stay' after strong election results

The far-right populist Freedom Party's strong showing in Sunday's election is a sign that it is fully established in Austria, says political scientist Heinz Gärtner of the University of Vienna.

DW: More than 26 percent of the vote – that is the Freedom Party's (FPÖ) best result since 1999. Which aspects speak in favor of a coalition with the winner of Sunday's election, the center-right People's Party (ÖVP)?

Heinz Gärtner: It's the topic that won them both votes: migration, the refugees, immigration. There is a lot of overlap in this area of politics. It seems natural that they would agree on a coalition. However, there is potential for conflict. Who decides on new immigration legislation? Who gets the Interior Ministry? There might be some friction there, but a lot points to a coalition between the ÖVP and the FPÖ.

Österreich Parlamentswahlen Jubelnde Anhänger von FPÖ (Reuters/M. Dalder)

Freedom Party supporters celebrate their strong showing in exit polls

Even the ÖVP's clear move to the right concerning refugee and migration policies under its young leader Sebastian Kurz did not come at the Freedom Party's expense. Isn't that rather unusual?

Yes it is, but it feels like – and I can't prove this empirically – Kurz and the ÖVP were much tougher on immigration toward the end of the election campaign than the FPÖ. More so than the FPÖ, Kurz strongly stressed a tough stance on Islam and Islamism. Many voters who support that point of view would normally have turned to the FPÖ camp. But Kurz's tough remarks allowed the ÖVP and their young top candidate to win points.

Of course, there are traditional FPÖ voters who remained loyal to the party. That's evident in the party's really good showing. And the FPÖ is not just an anti-immigration party. The FPÖ rose over the past decades, when refugees and migration weren't yet major political issues. So I'd have to say the FPÖ is experiencing some "natural" growth. That's where it differs from other far-right parties in Europe that haven't been around for that long, like the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

How will Austria's move to the right become manifest in politics? Will we be seeing an "Orbanization" like in Hungary?

We've had this kind of coalition before, back in the mid-2000s. Cuts were made in social benefits, criminal law was tightened. Speaking about an "Orbanization," I'm sure there will be closer ties with the Visegrad Group. Basically, better ties with one's neighbors aren't a bad idea. But then, there is Orban in Hungary, and he immediately sent his congratulations.

Twice, the FPÖ has been a junior partner in a federal government coalition. Back then, there were Europe-wide protests against the right-wing populists. How "normal" has the party become for Austrian society?

Totally normal. If you look at the political system, Austria is now a three-party system. For a very long time, Austria had a two-party system with the Social Democrats and the People's Party. With the rise of the FPÖ, it has become a three-party system, and that is here to stay. I don't expect the FPÖ to disappear, it has roots in Austrian society.

Far-right populist parties are currently winning elections all over Europe. What do these movements and Austria's FPÖ have in common?

There are differences. What they have in common, of course, is that they are all right-wing populist, and they cooperate in the European Parliament to give them a certain level of influence, for instance to allow them to submit joint drafts. But that does not mean they are all the same, ideology-wise.

The FPÖ mainly differs from other right-wing populist parties in that it wants to stay in the EU. Austria takes on the presidency of the EU next year and the FPÖ knows it would be isolated if Austria held the presidency while the FPÖ was advocating an exit.

I suppose, however, that if the Foreign Minister is an FPÖ politician, both the party and Austria would be more isolated in the European Parliament. What also distinguishes the party from other far-right parties in Europe is its tradition in Austria. The AfD has only just been created. The FPÖ has been around since 1945, it used to be a Nazi party, though today, of course, it is more moderate.

The FPÖ is no "instant party" created for a single occasion that will then disappear again. That is probably what most distinguishes it from other right-wing populist parties in Europe.

Professor Heinz Gärtner is a political scientist at the University of Vienna.

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