Right-wing extremism in the Austrian mainstream
National identity as a means for the political success of the Austrian Freedom Party
Anti-immigration, nationalist and anti-establishment sentiment (Rathgeb, p. 2021, p. 646, Meret, p. 2021, p. 187) lies at the heart of the modern-day Austrian Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) political identity. Where other parties with similar ideologies struggle to threaten mainstream political entities in other Western European democracies, the FPÖ has continually enjoyed political success for the past 30 years. How is it then that a self-proclaimed patriotic, populistic political party (Agar, 2014, p. 226) is consistently the third-largest party in the Austrian political establishment, and has formed a part of three separate governments since 1999 (Federal Ministry of the Interior, 2019)?
Firstly, it is important to note that there is no single factor that can explain the FPÖ’s political success; explaining their success poses a significant challenge for political scientists. As Karner (2010, p. 42) notes, conventional political models cannot explain the sustained political success of the FPÖ. Muis et al. (2017, p. 912) observe that political success for far-right parties like the FPÖ is typically associated with factors such as perceived cultural losses and economic disadvantage. Such conditions, however, have not been associated with Austria in the timeframe in which the FPÖ has enjoyed significant political successes. On the contrary, Austria is eighteenth on the United Nations Human Development Index (United Nations Development Programme, 2020), an index that classifies countries based upon life expectancy, quality of life and educational opportunity. Further, Plasser (1989, p. 41) notes that Austria has long been marked for its political stability. Given these factors, political theory suggests a far-right party such as the FPÖ should struggle to find its electoral niche in the Austrian political system, yet their enduring success indicates that modern-day Austria is indeed a politically fertile environment for populist parties.
The FPÖ would not have commanded political power without being able to both conceive and implement a reliable strategy that allowed for its sustained success, regardless of the aforementioned socio-economic factors typically associated with the rise of parties with similar ideologies. As such, this paper proposes that in the absence of, and contrast with, the previously noted indicators of success for right-wing populist political movements, the manipulation and exploitation of Austrian identity by the FPÖ play an overarching role in explaining the FPÖs successes to date.