In a surprise move on June 2nd, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) confirmed the resignation of their chief of two years, Norbert Hofer, after the latter briefly announced he was stepping down via twitter before his staffers deleted it again. His deputy, Harald Stefan, took over as interim head until a party summit on Monday unanimously elected Herbert Kickl as the new party head after five hours of deliberation. He will be officially installed as head of the Freedom Party on the June 19.
Hofer, best known for running against Alexander Van der Bellen in Austria’s 2016 presidential election, assumed leadership of the FPÖ two years ago following the infamous Ibiza scandal, which compelled long-time party head H.C. Strache to resign in disgrace. Kickl, on the other hand, was a pivotal actor in Sebastian Kurz’s first administration with the FPÖ (2017-2019), acting as interior minister until his dismissal in the wake of the Ibiza affair at Kurz’s request. He then became an MP and head of the FPÖ’s parliamentary faction, where he has been a highly vocal opponent of the Chancellor, recently rising to prominence as the leading critic of Austria’s COVID-19 measures; as the pandemic progressed, his following has only grown.
Despite his sudden departure, Hofer stated that his decision had been “maturing for a long time;” he plans to continue serving as the 3rd president of the Nationarat (National Assembly), and remains open to another presidential campaign in 2022.
While Hofer’s departure caught many within his party off guard, Kickl’s rise over the past few months had led to a highly visible power struggle within the party, with many predicting a confrontation with Hofer only a matter of time. In the 2019 Austrian parliamentary elections, Kickl received almost double the Vorzugsstimmen (preferential votes) than Hofer did. The two prominent figures had been publicly critical of each other, stressing how ‘distanced’ they are privately. While Hofer represented the moderate faction within the FPÖ, Kickl’s pithy and blunt rhetoric as well as his cavalier attitude toward groups like neo-Nazis, right-wing fraternities and identitarians made him a favorite among hardliners.
Plotting a Course
Kickl wasted no time, giving multiple statements on his future plans for the party. He was quick to clarify that he won’t directly support right-wing extremists, but did express admiration for their “patriotism.” He plans to lead the FPÖ in a manner that is honest and consistent with their political ideology. “What the gentry call radical, I call sustainable, consistent, straightforward and honest,” he told the Ö1 Morgenjournal on Tuesday. Kickl rejected the “right-wing label” his party has acquired and said “a clear no to that, but a clear yes to the love of freedom. A clear yes to the fact that we are the only patriotic party, that we are Eurosceptical, that we are looking to preserve our homeland and identity, and that we naturally want to close our borders.”
Unlike his predecessor, who made electibility and statesmanship central to FPÖ policy, Kickl has shown a more confrontational style of opposition politics, frequently taking aim at the current conservative-green coalition. This, he said, will be “the biggest dazzle of the Second Republic;” he also pledged to make policy that is “lively, vital and empathetic,” unlike the current administration, which he considers “sterile, technocratic and cold as ice.”