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Austria's far-right Freedom Party

Nancy Isenson
October 12, 2017

Austria's Freedom Party, FPÖ, has a good chance of being part of the country's next government — not for the first time. Unlike the German AfD, Austria's far-right party has long since cast aside its pariah status.

Heinz-Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer wave Austrian flags
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Bruna

The Freedom Party (FPÖ) has long positioned itself as a political "defender of tradition" in Austria. The far-right populists are credited with shifting Austrian politics to the right with a host of actions and demands including:

- A strong anti-Muslim message and long-time call for a ban on face veils, which has since become law.

- Party leader Hans-Christian Strache demanding an end to immigration to the country of 8.7 million, a position that appears to resonate with a broad swathe of Austrians, who took in tens of thousands of asylum-seekers during the European refugee crisis of 2015.

- Strache likening the failed coup in Turkey and subsequent purges to the burning of the Reichstag in Nazi Germany.

- The party following a euroskeptic course and aligning itself closely with Germany's Alternative for Germany and Marine Le Pen's Front National.

Heinz-Christian Strache and Frauke Petry atop Germany's Zugspitze mountain
Strache has cultivated bonds to other European populists, such as Germany's Frauke Petry, then of the Alternative for Germany (AfD)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

EU pariahs

Founded in 1955, the FPÖ looked like a European-style liberal party, but under the leadership of the late Jörg Haider it evolved into a far-right, populist party. The flamboyant Harley Davidson motorcycle fan led the FPÖ into its first Austrian government coalition alongside the center-right People's Party (ÖVP) in 2000.

Austria was briefly sanctioned by the EU for allowing the extremists into the government, and the coalition eventually ended in ignominy as the FPÖ grappled with having to give up its anti-establishment role. But the time in government did help put an end to the FPÖ's pariah status — at least in Austria.

Jörg Haider in Vienna
The FPÖ and Jörg Haider himself rose to prominence under his leadership of the partyImage: picture-alliance/AP Images/R. Zak

Last year Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer won the first round of voting for the Austrian presidency, an important if mainly ceremonial position. He lost to another outsider, independent candidate Alexander van Bellen, by eight percentage points, close enough to what would have been a historic victory for the FPÖ in a national election.

2017 election forecast

Pollsters say the People's Party will win the October 15 general election comfortably, while the Freedom Party could do just as well as the center-left Social Democrats, which have traditionally seen the People Party's as their main rival.

ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz has indicated he would form a government with the FPÖ, but made clear that the party would have to give up on the idea of Austria leaving the EU. Strache and Co. have been careful to moderate their tone to avoid jeopardizing their possibilities.