Is Austria’s far-right FPO losing support amid Nazi scandals?
Experts warn that the FPO’s apparent loss of support is not a direct result of a recent spate of anti-Semitic scandals.
An attache in Israel wearing a pro-Nazi t-shirt.
Councillors arrested for WhatsApp messages glorifying Nazi Germany.
A candidate forced to quit after news emerged he was heading a student fraternity that distributed a songbook with genocidal anti-Semitic lyrics.
These are just a few of the scandals that the Austrian government’s junior coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), has been embroiled in so far this year.
In October 2017, the FPO clenched 26 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections.
It struck a deal in December to become the junior coalition partner to the right-wing Austrian People’s Party (OVP).
In February, Oskar Deutsch, the leader of the Jewish Communities of Austria, cast doubt on the FPO’s disavowals of anti-Semitic incidents involving party members.
“You can’t go ‘click’ and say ‘Until now we’ve been like this but now we’re not anti-Semitic anymore, now we have other interests’,” he told a press conference at the time. “That is not credible.”
Yet, while the FPO has failed to reproduce its October success in three subsequent provincial elections and nationwide opinion polls, analysts have warned that it is likely too early to interpret the developments as a lasting trend.
Cas Mudde, an expert on far-right populism and associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, said parties like the FPO often experience a decline in support following elections.
“The FPO’s surge was also not that sudden, and its drop is not unexpected, as it often happens after a protest party enters government,” he told Al Jazeera.
Embroiled in scandals
Although it has repeatedly claimed that it has abandoned its Nazi roots, the FPO has found itself struggling time and again against accusations of racism and anti-Semitism. Despite overtures to Israel, the FPO has been met with much scepticism and condemnation from the Austrian Jewish community.
Last month, the Austrian Foreign Ministry recalled an attache who had been based in Israel after he posted a Facebook photo donning a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “stand your ground” and “Frundsberg”.
Jurgen-Michael Kleppich’s shirt was ostensibly referencing Georg von Frundsberg, a 15th century mercenary whose surname was used by Nazi Germany’s 10th SS Panzer division during the second world war, according to the German-language weekly Falter.
As a councillor in Vienna’s district, Kleppich had previously posted images of his grandfather dressed in a swastika-bearing Nazi uniform, Falter reported at the time.
In Suben, an area of northwestern Austria, two FPO councillors were among six people targeted in a police raid conducted last month over allegations that they had shared Hitler photos and slogans via the WhatsApp messaging app. The party expelled the pair in response to the scandal.
In January, Udo Landbauer, a regional candidate for the FPO in Lower Austria, was engulfed in controversy after news emerged that a fraternity for which he was deputy co-chair distributed a songbook with lyrics calling for the genocide of Jews.
As the Falter magazine reported at the time, the songbook contained the lyrics: “In their midst comes the Jew Ben Gurion: ‘Step on the gas, you ancient Germanic peoples, we’ll manage the seventh million’.”
The lyrics refer to David Ben Gurion, the primary founder of Israel, and the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust, which most historians agree is around six million.
With criticism mounting, Landbauer resigned from all political offices.
In October 2017, the FPO suspended a low-ranking official who had been accused of performing Nazi salutes.
Mudde explained that anti-Semitism and racism are not explicit components of the FPO’s ideology, but argued that the party’s leaders “pander to it because they believe it is important to mobilise part of its support base”.
Loss of support
Founded in 1956 by former Nazis, the FPO has gained notoriety for its stridently anti-migrant and anti-Muslim positions.
The FPO first joined a government coalition in 2000 after gaining 27 percent of the vote during parliamentary elections during the previous year.
Throughout the campaign leading up to those elections, the party was repeatedly lambasted for anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric.
Farid Hafez, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, explained that the FPO’s latest spate of scandals highlights its failure to convincingly shed its past, but does not necessarily explain its recent loss of support.
“Anti-Semitism, as we can see with the last scandals, is still as much part of many of the rank and file as well as the leadership of the FPO,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that the party has focused its public ire on Muslims and refugees.
Since it joined the coalition in December, it has ostensibly suffered from a loss in support.
In early March, voters headed to the ballot box in Carinthia, the area bordering Italy and Slovenia and the only province where the FPO came in first place during the October 2017 elections.
The SPO, however, came in first place, overwhelming the FPO’s 22.9 percent of the vote by securing nearly 48 percent of the ballots.
In a recent press release, the party’s secretary-general, Harald Vilimsky, dismissed speculation that it had lost support as “negative spin” pushed by the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO) and its allies.
The FPO did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.
For his part, Hafez doubts the apparent decline in support has much to do with the FPO’s ideology and its inability to avoid scandals.
“Although anti-Semitism and Islamophobia may not be the main drivers of the electorate to vote the FPO, the electorate gives their support at the ballot box despite knowing their racist attitudes,” he said.
“If we can speak at all of a decline in the support for the FPO, then this is due to the working people realising that the FPO is not serving them but rather the middle and upper classes.”
The slumping support for the FPO comes amid a surge in anti-fascist and anti-racist protests that have decried the far-right party’s nativism and ultra-nationalism.
On January 26, between 8,000 and 10,000 people assembled to rally against the FPO outside the party’s annual ball, according to local media reports.
Chanting slogans against the FPO, demonstrators held up placards that read “resistance” and “don’t let Nazis govern”.
Rallies against the FPO’s annual ball have been held every year since 2008.
Just two weeks before the ball, around 20,000 demonstrators had gathered in Vienna and called on Europe to boycott the OVP-FPO coalition.
That same month, Austria’s interior minister, Herbert Kickl of the FPO, sparked widespread criticism after declaring at a press conference that the country should “concentrate” asylum seekers in a single space.
Critics pointed to Austria’s complicity in the Holocaust, during which tens of thousands were killed in a death camp in Mauthausen-Gusen between 1938 and 1945.
When the FPO joined the governing coalition in December 2017, protesters flooded the streets to voice their disapproval.
But Hafez warned that anger at the FPO, comparably poor electoral performances and unfavourable opinion polls are most likely not indicators of a broad shift in society.
Explaining that the ruling OVP included the FPO in its coalition despite knowing the far-right party’s ideology, Hafez noted that anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism are problems that plague many Austrian political parties, including the OVP and the SPO.
“There is no reason to believe that this [decline in support] is due to anybody waking up to the reality of the FPO’s racism and anti-Semitism,” he concluded.
“The electorate knows the FPO and its ideology, and it has always been fundamentally racist, depicting especially Jews and Muslims as the scapegoats of all social ills.”