+++ Update, October 10, 2019 +++
The wrangling for a parliamentary seat for Philippa Strache, wife of former FPÖ chief Heinz-Christian Strache, still goes on. After the FPÖ wanted to use procedural tricks to deny Philippa Strache her seat as an MP, the Landeswahlbehörde (state electoral committee) now announced that the time has passed for such maneuvers.
The Freedom Party planned to have another prospective MP, who was elected to Parliament both on the federal and the Viennese list, to “switch” seats and thus take Strache’s position in her stead. But according to the state electoral committee for Vienna, the timeframe for such a switch would have been the 48 hours right after the election. Since neither the FPÖ nor the representative in question made the request, Strache can claim her parliamentary seat, even against the will of the party whose list she ran on.
Currently, it remains unclear whether Strache will take the seat. In a Facebook posting on Thursday, she declared that she is considering the entire situation and will announce her decision in due time. However, it already seems clear that she wouldn’t be a part of the Freedom Party parliamentary club and would instead sit as a “wild MP.”
+++ Original article, October 8, 2019 +++
Philippa Strache was not to be given a parliamentary mandate, the FPÖ said in a statement Monday evening, October 7. Citing “massive losses suffered recently” at the polls, the party is “striving with particular care to fulfill its responsibilities to the Freedom Party voter community.” Philippa Strache, wife of discredited former Vice Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache, would not be seated until “the accusations in the room [of misusing party funds for personal expenses, ed.] have been clarified.” But on Tuesday, a legal challenge altered the picture – it turns out that the party may not have the authority to keep Strache out of parliament after all.
As Metropole has reported, the Straches have seen their careers first falter and then fail this year. First came Ibiza-gate, then the scandal over the abuse of party expense accounts (taxpayer funded) – which deeply tarnished their image. After the Freedom Party’s steep losses in last month’s election (earning 16%, down nearly 10 points from 2017), H.C. Strache announced his full withdrawal from political life – but called for the “Freedom Party family” to remain unified.
Until yesterday, a glimmer of hope for the political couple remained: Philippa Strache – the party’s former animal rights representative – was third on the Vienna province’s list of FPÖ candidates to the National Assembly. Even though the party only had enough votes to send the top two Vienna names to parliament, it was expected that Harald Stefan (second on the list) would make use of his separate regional parliamentary mandate, thus allowing Strache to take his Vienna “spot”. (The distribution of mandates is its own science). So rosy was the outlook that Heinz-Christian congratulated his wife and thanked her supporters in a Facebook post on October 1, the same day he announced his complete withdrawal from political life.
A Strache Party?
Shortly after Monday’s announcement denying the seat, H.C. Strache posted an article on Facebook from The Epoch Times, citing a recent survey suggesting that a “Strache List” could capture up to 16% of Austrian votes. (The Epoch Times is a generally right-wing newspaper published daily and weekly in major cities by a group of Chinese-American business men. The paper has print editions in Chinese and English, as well as another six languages, according to the company’s website.) Pundit tongues were sent wagging about a possible comeback in the form of his own splinter party, possibly as soon as the local Vienna elections in 2020.
But as of midday Tuesday, there was a new wrinkle in the rapidly unfolding story: It turns out that the FPÖ may not have a choice as to whether Stefan does or does not take up his regional constituency mandate. The Interior Ministry has been asked to provide guidance, which is expected by Wednesday. If Stefan must indeed take up the other mandate, Philippa Strache would be able to choose whether or not to take her seat in the National Assembly.
Whatever is decided, the incident emphasizes the difficulties for the FPÖ, which has worked hard to build an image as a trustworthy party closer to the mainstream. Some fifteen years ago, it was H.C. Strache who helped elbow Jörg Haider to the sidelines within the FPÖ, inspiring Haider and other former FPÖ heavyweights to split off and found the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich party (BZÖ) in 2005. The BZÖ was ultimately unsuccessful (not least because Haider was killed in a 2008 car crash), while Strache led the rump FPÖ to increasing success. If Strache does form his own party, it will be interesting to see whose history gets repeated, Jörg Haider’s or his own.