Still Brown in Braunau

A succession of neo-Nazi associations has put coalition partner FPÖ under political pressure, to the surprising benefit of the governing ÖVP.

This is a good time for political conspiracy theorists in Austria.  Almost daily, headlines are bringing junior coalition partner the Freedom Party (FPÖ) into uncomfortably close contact with unpleasantly neo-Nazi activities and activists. Some pundits suggest this is what the wily young Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was hoping all along.  “The ghost of Wolfgang Schüssel” is stalking the FPÖ, commented Thomas Prior April 27 in the daily Die Presse, recalling a similar situation in 2002 when then ÖVP Kanzler cooly watched and waited as coalition partner FPÖ’s poll ratings sank disastrously from self-inflicted wounds, and disaffected voters shifted to Schüssel’s ÖVP in the next election . Today’s numbers tell a similar story: The Profil-survey completed April 18 shows Kurz’ personal approval ratings up two points and his Vice-Chancellor’s equally down.  The swing may be slight but the direction is significant.

The most recent blow to the FPÖ’s carefully-constructed image as responsible partner is the so-called “Rattengedicht” (rat poem) affair. A local FPÖ party official and Vice-Mayor in the town of Braunau was exposed as the source of an odiously racist verse comparing immigrants to rats. He was promptly sacked, but the damage was done. Kanzler Kurz told the Kleine Zeitung that the poem was “disgusting” and demanded consequences.  Party boss H-C Strache did as he was told and distanced himself and the party from such “individual cases”. It looks like the conspiracy theorists may be correct: rubbing shoulders with the far right is damaging the FPÖ and Kurz’s “statesmanlike” moral stand is profiting the ÖVP.

A brief look at the Freedom Party’s tortuous past can help to explain its (well earned) vulnerability to accusations of neo-Nazism.  The VdU (Verband der Unabhängigen, Union of Independents) was formed in 1949 as an odd alliance of middle class liberals and “Minderbelasteten”, minor NSDAP party members who had been granted official amnesty in the legal process of denazification after WWII.  The hope was that the new party would bring them as voters into a legitimate democratic system.

An internal power struggle between liberals and nationalists was however pre-programmed. By 1955, the nationalist wing had gained the upper hand and re-formed as the Freedom Party. Through the 1970’s and early 80’s, the economic liberals were occasionally on top, but in 1986 the charismatic and aggressively nationalist Jörg Haider became chairman and set the party on its present hard right course.  After his dramatic death in a late-night car crash in 2008, the present leader H-C Strache took over. Strache re-built the FPÖ, reaching a 25-27% voter share and, in recent years working hard to re-position as a trustworthy party of government – with only partial success, as recent events make clear.

Strache now has his work cut out for him – both the liberal and centrist media are pouncing on every flicker of neo-Nazi associations. The polls quoted above suggest that he is losing ground, but with the qualified backing of his partner Chancellor Kurz and a weakened social-democratic opposition, the game is nowhere near over.  As Margaret Thatcher famously said: “In politics, a week is a very long time.”

An added piquancy perhaps: Braunau is also Hitler’s birthplace and the Nazi party’s iconic color was braun (brown).  Nomen est omen?

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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