Austria’s far-right faction elects leader ahead of national elections
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Austria’s far-right faction elects leader ahead of national elections

Norbert Hofer is known as the friendly face of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party, but critics call him a dangerous ideologue

Norbert Hofer addresses the media during a press conference in Vienna, Austria, May 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)
Norbert Hofer addresses the media during a press conference in Vienna, Austria, May 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)

Austria’s far-right party on Saturday formally elected Norbert Hofer to lead it into national elections later this month.

Hofer took over the Freedom Party (FPOe)’s leadership in May after Heinz-Christian Strache resigned, both as party head and Austrian vice-chancellor, in the wake of the “Ibiza-gate” corruption scandal.

That scandal brought down the government, a coalition formed in late 2017 between the FPOe and the People’s Party (OeVP) of then chancellor Sebastian Kurz, with fresh elections set for September 29.

On Saturday, FPOe delegates formally elected Hofer, Strache’s former deputy, to head the party.

“It is our goal to become Austria’s strongest party — because we are able to do so and because Austria needs us,” Hofer told the party convention in the city of Graz in southeastern Austria.

Despite the scandal, the FPOe stands at around 20 percent in voter polls, neck-to-neck with the Social Democrats (SPOe).

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party addresses the media during press conference at the sport ministry in Vienna, Austria, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)

The OeVP remains the strongest party but is unlikely to be able to form a majority government by itself, according to polls.

Hofer said his party would continue to fight “political Islam” and would also take on new themes, such as protecting the environment.

“I will take the necessary steps to bring this party forward,” the former transport minister said.

Analysts say Hofer faces a battle to unite party hardliners and overcome the Ibiza-gate scandal.

Hidden video footage filmed in the resort island of Ibiza in 2017 and released in May by German media showed then FPOe leader Strache appearing to offer contracts to a fake Russian backer in return for campaign help.

Hofer admitted the scandal had made for a “really difficult phase” for the FPOe, but despite this solicited a round of loud applause for Strache for his commitment.

Strache, who led the party for 14 years, did not attend the convention.
Those who did attend said the FPOe stood united.

“Everyone thought they can destroy the FPOe. [Instead] it is becoming a bigger and bigger family,” Robert Spoerk, 60, an FPOe member who runs a coffee shop in Graz, told AFP.

Hofer has gained a reputation as the friendly face of the far-right faction in contrast to some of its firebrands.

But skeptics say that behind the grin lurks a steely, dyed-in-the-wool ideologue.

In the run-up to national elections, Hofer has declared he wants to “put his stamp” on the party and see it in government again in a renewed coalition with the conservative OeVP.

Supporters wave Austrian flags during the final election campaign event of the right-wing Freedom Party for European elections in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Hofer grew up in the city of Pinkafeld in Burgenland state, near the border with Hungary.

His father was a businessman and involved in the OeVP, which formed the coalition with the FPOe in 2017, and again looks set to win the most votes.

Even now, the softly-spoken aircraft engineer with a disarming smile maintains his links to Pinkafeld, where he is regularly seen cycling, shopping and visiting the same kebab restaurant.

A Cessna air plane that the 48-year-old bought with two others last year is kept there, too. Hofer himself walks with a cane after a paragliding accident, but he remains a keen amateur flier.

Politically, Hofer — most recently transport minister and long touted as a leadership contender within the far-right party — was the FPOe candidate in the 2016 presidential election.

In the end, he lost the race for the largely ceremonial post to a former leader of the Green party, but he turned in a strong performance, surprising many — including some in his own party.

Christian Rainer, editor-in-chief of weekly magazine Profil, once described Hofer as “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

This time again, he is campaigning with slick posters that show him with the slogan “loyal to the homeland,” and has returned to the party’s tradition of anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric.

“Islam is not part of our culture, not part of our history and will never be so,” he said during Saturday’s party convention.

Hofer, who wrote the FPOe’s party program, also hailed his “long-term friendship” with Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a visit to Budapest this week.

A father-of-four on his second marriage, he first took on an official role in the FPOe in 1994 in his home state, before starting to work at a national level two years later. He became FPOe deputy head in 2005.

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