Austrian far right: History of a ‘pact with the devil’

Now beginning its second stint in government, Freedom Party has sought to moderate image, distance itself from Nazi roots

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) and Vice Chancellor (FPOe) Heinz Christian Strache arrive for the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Vienna on December 18, 2017. (AFP Photo/Vladimir Simicek)
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) and Vice Chancellor (FPOe) Heinz Christian Strache arrive for the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Vienna on December 18, 2017. (AFP Photo/Vladimir Simicek)

VIENNA (AFP) — Austria’s new coalition between the conservatives and the far right was sworn in on Monday, rekindling an alliance from the early 2000s which prompted unease around Europe.

Here is a brief history of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) and its first period in coalition government, dubbed a “pact with the devil” by the media.

SS-admirer Haider

In 2000, the conservative People’s Party (OeVP) — now Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s party — picked the FPOe as its junior coalition partner.

Jorg Haider (CC BY 2.0, sugarmeloncom, Wikimedia Commons)

At that time the FPOe was headed by Jorg Haider, a charismatic and flamboyant but controversial figure who praised Hitler’s “orderly employment policies.”

He called SS veterans “decent people” and described concentration camps as “punishment camps”.

The FPOe has since softened its image. It won 26 percent of the vote in elections on October 15, in third place close behind the center-left Social Democrats (SPOe).

Ex-Nazi founders

Founded by ex-Nazis after World War II, the FPOe emerged as Europe’s strongest far-right force in the late 1990s.

The personality of skilled orator Haider proved a hit with Austrians.

Voters had grown tired of coalition gridlock between the OeVP and the SPOe.

Wolfgang Schuessel (Screen capture: YouTube)

In October 1999 the FPOe became the country’s second-biggest political force with 27 percent of the vote.

Centrist parties were thrown into turmoil. OeVP chief Wolfgang Schuessel struck a power-sharing deal with the far right in 2000.

To appease concerns, Haider signed a commitment to “the fundamental values of European democracy.” He also agreed not to hold any ministerial post.

Austria ostracized

The prospect of the far right’s return to power sparked outcry, however.

Ehud Barak at a press conference last week. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ehud Barak (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Barak described Haider as “the representative of evil.”

Austria’s 14 European Union partners of the time imposed bilateral diplomatic sanctions.

Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna.

Hundreds of thousands of people joined demonstrations against the coalition, some turning violent.

Under pressure, Haider stepped down as FPOe leader on May 1, 2000.

Divisions appeared among EU countries over the diplomatic measures against Austria. In September the sanctions were lifted.

FPOe decline

In government, the FPOe pushed through several of its policies including a crackdown on immigration.

But internal rifts started to tear the party apart. Schuessel called snap elections in 2002.

The FPOe’s share of the vote plummeted. Haider formed a new party which continued to govern with the OeVP until it lost support in elections in 2006.

Israel normalized relations with Austria in November 2003.

Haider died in a drunk-driving crash in 2008. Numerous corruption scandals involving Haider and his associates have surfaced since.

‘Nazi whiff’

Under its internet-savvy current leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who took over in 2005, the FPOe has seen a dramatic revival, coming close to winning the presidency last year.

It shares common ground with Kurz on cutting immigration and taxes.

Although the FPOe is traditionally ambivalent toward the EU, Kurz stressed on Saturday that Vienna would remain staunchly pro-Europe, ruling out a British-style referendum on membership.

However he said that he will press for Brussels to “step back on smaller issues” that should be decided by member states. His government also opposes Turkey joining the bloc.

Sebastian Kurz (L) of the conservative People’s Party (OeVP) and Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) give a joint press conference in Vienna on December 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Alex Halada)

But Austria’s Jewish community has branded the FPOe a “nationalist wolf” in sheep’s clothing. Holocaust survivors recently warned that the FPOe still emanated a “Nazi whiff.”

In September a group remembering Nazi camp victims published a list of what it said were at least 60 anti-Semitic and racist incidents involving FPOe figures since 2013.

“I am very worried,” Stefanie, 26, one of around 5,500 protesters demonstrating in Vienna on Monday, told AFP.

“We saw what happened 15 years ago. The rich are favored at the expense of the weak, the poor, refugees. And a few years later all the corruption scandals come out.”

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