Austria Far-Right Eyes Comeback under New Hardline Leader

REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/file photo
Head of Freedom Party (FPOE) Herbert Kickl attends a news conference in Vienna, Austria, August 25, 2022.

Sunk by a corruption scandal four years ago, Austria’s far-right is rapidly regaining lost ground under its new hardline leader and topping polls in the small Alpine nation.

Freedom Party head Herbert Kickl delighted 300 cheering supporters at an event ahead of weekend elections in southern Carinthia state, setting out his party’s stall.

Besides its trademark opposition to migration, the Freedom Party (FPOe) has been able to tap into voter anxieties over the Ukraine war and inflation, as well as anger over strict Covid-19 measures during the pandemic.

It has also lured back voters from the conservatives, who lost their charismatic leader Sebastian Kurz when he stepped down in 2021, facing a string of corruption accusations.

– ‘Fortress Austria’ –

Since Kickl, a 54-year-old former interior minister, took over the FPOe in 2021, it is polling 29 percent, according to recent voter intention surveys, up significantly from 16 percent won at 2019 elections.

The opposition Social Democrats and the conservatives — whose mandate to govern with the Greens runs until 2024 — lag behind, polling head-to-head at around 24 percent in the country of just over nine million.

While Kickl is not known for close ties with his European counterparts, his virulent rhetoric is typical of other prolific far-right figures.

In last week’s political rally, he accused “political elites” of running a “big programme of uprooting ordinary people”.

He appeared on posters across Carinthia ahead of the polls dressed in a military-green jacket and his trademark stubble and spectacles alongside the slogan: “Fortress Austria — closing borders, guaranteeing security”.

Kickl has also seized on anger over Covid restrictions, including a now-scrapped mandatory vaccination law, to turn the FPOe into an anti-jab party.

“The FPOe was really the only party here in Austria that always sided with us,” said Fabian Nicolasch, a 24-year-old who joined the party in protest at being restricted during the pandemic.

While a folk group plays under electric blue neon lights, the party’s colour, at the rally, Nicolasch also complained about price increases caused in part “probably by the sanctions against Russia” which have made oil and gas “very expensive”.

On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kickl insists on upholding Austria’s neutrality, while his party has criticised EU financial aid to Kyiv and opposes Ukraine’s EU membership aspirations.

At the party campaign event, Kickl taunted Austria’s pro-Kyiv president, saying “he forgets he’s not head of a NATO country”.

– The party’s ‘brain’ –

“Mr Kickl is honest — and sometimes maybe a bit strong in his choice of words — but always great,” said Iris Pirker-Fruehauf, a local FPOe leader.

Kickl, a marathon runner and climbing enthusiast, has long been considered the “brain” of the FPOe and has made his career largely behind the scenes.

After studying philosophy, history, communication and political science, he started to work for the party in 1995.

He shot to national prominence as interior minister, overseeing a controversial raid on the country’s secret service, while the FPOe governed as junior partner in a conservative-led government from 2017 until 2019.

That government fell apart when footage secretly filmed on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza was published, implicating then FPOe leader and vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache in wrongdoing.

In the footage, Strache is seen offering public contracts to a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch in return for campaign support.

Strache resigned, with his deputy Norbert Hofer taking over the party, until rivalry between him and Kickl ended with the latter taking the helm.

Under Kickl’s leadership, the FPOe “has no limits in trying to capture and strengthen” popular opinion, according to political scientist Johannes Huber.

The conservatives once again could be tempted to work with the FPOe following elections as “Kickl remains the most attractive partner to serve the interests of their constituents,” Huber told AFP.

“In this respect, I would absolutely not exclude that after the next elections, Herbert Kickl could become chancellor,” he said.