• Olivier Lawrie

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.

The FPÖ has both recognised and exploited the potential identity politics it holds to mobilise voters and, consequently, forms an essential part of their political strategy. An example is their intent to manipulate the memory of Austrian history, and therefore shape the identity that voters build based on these memories. As Ager (2014, p. 250) mentions, through historical revisionist statements that directly contradict official historiography, 'various forms of [alternative] discourse become "mainstream" in the public sphere [...] whereby National Socialist crimes are permanently and repeatedly trivialised'. Through this, the FPÖ normalises a contradictory narrative to the one propagated by the Austrian political establishment regardless of factual validity. This mainstream political deviation enables the FPÖ to legitimise accusations against the political establishment that would not previously have been salient in the minds of the electorate. Consequently, its supporters are empowered to hold an extreme and divergent political identity that they perceive to be legitimate within the construct of modern Austrian society.

Stoegner (2016, p. 499) consolidates this fact by noting that this strategy is not only linked to historical memories. The aforementioned author remarks that the FPÖ wants to shape societal narratives to suit their political direction; they appear anti-elitist in public, yet their actions indicate that they do not want to develop a solution to elitism. Instead, they aim to further expand and reinforce the "us and them" narrative between themselves and the perceived political establishment. By manipulating and, in some instances, reconstructing Austrian identity, it is not only easier for the FPÖ to ensure supporters will identify with its chosen values, but also make sure it is socially destructive for its supporters to accept criticism from divergent political perspectives. These factors safeguard the loyalty of the FPÖ’s voter base and thus preserve its sustained electoral success.

The FPÖ’s manipulation of Austrian identity is not only prevalent on a domestic level. The FPÖ recognises that questions of identity also emerge, and are politically expedient, on an international level. Austria is part of the European Union (EU), where sovereignty is exchanged for economic and social benefits (Castells, 1998); a vulnerability of the EU that is exploited by the FPÖ. As has been noted by scholars such as Karner (2011, p. 4), international unions largely find it difficult to connect with the lived identities and histories of many citizens, thereby highlighting the areas that the FPÖ can exploit to connect with voters.

This dependence on identity for engineering political success is further demonstrated by the FPÖ's performance as a governing party. As a partner of a governing coalition, the FPÖ found it significantly more difficult to respond to political sentiment in a timely and effective manner, as they became the party “responsible“ for problems in the political arena. As Ellinas (2010, p. 74) states, as a member of former governments, the FPÖ has had to both implement its policies and have its policy critically scrutinised at both an international and domestic level. This newfound scrutiny meant that the hypocrisy associated with both propagating anti-establishment rhetoric and being a part of that very same establishment is more easily exposed. Further, Stoegner (2016, p. 499) notes that the FPÖ does not want to offer solutions to issues such as social inequality. Its express purpose is to provoke outrage and use it to mobilise voters at elections, despite the aforementioned anti-establishment politics being a fundamental aspect of their political existence. This exposition of the FPÖ serves to damage both its reputation and, as a result, its chances of electoral success.

To substantiate this argument with a real-world example, it is worth noting the events of the so-called Ibiza affair in 2019, where two leading FPÖ politicians, including former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, helped a Russian oligarch be awarded state contracts (Leonhard, 2019). This is a concrete example of the inherent hypocrisy of the FPÖ’s electoral strategy; the aforementioned counter-elitist rhetoric is juxtaposed with the elitist actions of the FPÖ whilst in government. The consequences of being in government as a populist party were also visible: The FPÖ lost a total of 20 seats in the federal election that followed in the aftermath of the scandal (Federal Ministry of the Interior, 2019).

Despite identity politics playing a central role in the success of FPÖ, it is worth noting the FPÖ has equally made use of more conventional methods to generate support. As Ellinas (2010, p. 59) explains, the FPÖ controlled the rhetoric around migration before established parties could formulate effective policy to ease the concerns of the Austrian population. Another tool for political success is the FPÖ's relationship with the mass media. Ellinas (2010, p. 61) notes that their 'easy access [...] to the mainstream media' helps them connect with potential voters and therefore maintain electoral success.

The ability of leading FPÖ politicians to manipulate and exploit perceived national identity and its related narratives creates a space in which the FPÖ can and will thrive for as long as their voter base remains politically insulated from divergent political ideologies.

It is clear that, in the absence of the usual indicators of a fertile political environment in which far-right parties like the FPÖ can succeed, Austrian national identity must be recognised as one of the cornerstones of their enduring success in the contemporary Austrian political space.


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