Heinz-Christian Strache, from neo-Nazi youth to Austria’s next vice-chancellor
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Heinz-Christian Strache, from neo-Nazi youth to Austria’s next vice-chancellor

He has rehabilitated the Freedom Party and led them back to real power with a veneer of respectability, vowing to crack down on any anti-Semitism

(L-R) Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen, Leader of Austria's conservative People's Party (OeVP), Sebastian Kurz and the Chairman of the Freedom Party (FPOe), Heinz-Christian Strache are seen prior talks at the Hofburg in Vienna, Austria, on December 16, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / APA / HANS PUNZ )
(L-R) Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen, Leader of Austria's conservative People's Party (OeVP), Sebastian Kurz and the Chairman of the Freedom Party (FPOe), Heinz-Christian Strache are seen prior talks at the Hofburg in Vienna, Austria, on December 16, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / APA / HANS PUNZ )

VIENNA, Austria — Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of Austria’s far-right party and the next vice-chancellor, dismisses his youthful dalliance with neo-Nazism as occurring when he was “stupid, naive and young.”

Now, three decades after German police detained him at a torch-lit protest by a group aping the Hitler Youth, Strache is the besuited, statesmanlike head of the Freedom Party, ostensibly rejecting all extremism.

But it remains to be seen how Strache, who in 2016 called German Chancellor Angela Merkel “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” will act, and whether he can keep the party behind him.

When the 35-year old former dental technician, brought up single-handedly by his mother in a lower-middle-class area of Vienna, took over the Freedom Party in 2005, the movement was a mess.

Joerg Haider, its controversial but magnetic leader from 1986-2000, had broken off to form his own party. The movement was torn apart by its last spell in government in the early 2000s.

But “HC,” his striking blue eyes matching the party colors, restored its fortunes, and in elections in October the Freedom Party won 26 percent — more than double Alternative for Germany’s score a month earlier.

Leader of Austria’s conservative People’s Party Sebastian Kurz (R) and the Chairman of the Freedom Party Heinz-Christian Strache give a joint press conference in Wien, Austria, on December 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/APA/Roland Schlager)

This gave Strache, now cutting a mature figure in his new glasses, a ticket to enter talks to form a coalition with Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives.

Those negotiations wrapped up late on Friday. Details of the new government’s plans were due later Saturday.

Fairness

When the FPOe last entered government in 2000 under Haider, there was uproar in Europe.

This time the reaction is likely to be muted, with Europe more inured to populists and the Freedom Party now seen as more moderate.

Indeed, early in Strache’s leadership, Freedom Party posters screamed “Daham statt Islam” (“Home not Islam”), but over the years they became less shrill and more subtle.

In this year’s campaign, the main messages were “Fairness” — an elastic term encompassing everything from lower taxes to scrapping benefits for immigrants — and opposition to “Islamization.”

Strache, now 48, has moved to clean up the party’s image by suspending members for anti-Semitic behavior, like a local councillor for a “Heil Hitler” salute in October.

Anti-fascist protesters demonstrate outside the Austrian parliament against the far-right Freedom Party on November 9, 2017, in Vienna. (AFP Photo/Joe Klamar)

But not everyone is convinced. 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 Freedom Party figures since 2013.

“If they really changed their ideology is a question they can only answer themselves,” said analyst Alexandra Siegl. “I would say they changed their tactics and their strategies, mainly.”

 Immigration halt

The Freedom Party manifesto vowed “no more immigration until further notice,” with pamphlets that railed against criminal immigrants. It also wants all integration efforts for refugees to stop — because, so the logic goes, they are only here temporarily.

“No, Islam is not part of Austria,” Strache said, back in jeans and traditional loden jacket and accompanied by his model wife 20 years his junior, at a typical beer-swilling, flag-waving Freedom Party election rally.

“Strache is the counterweight to Angela Merkel, whose ‘welcome culture’ is destroying Europe,” one Freedom Party supporter told AFP, not wishing to give his name.

Strache appears ambivalent at best toward Europe, calling Brussels a “bureaucratic monster,” believing Britain will “probably be better off after Brexit,” and saying EU sanctions on Russia must be lifted.

“Strache knows he has to act the statesman if the Freedom Party wants to get more than 20 percent,” Nina Horaczek, an award-winning journalist who wrote a biography of Strache, told AFP before the election.

“But with their program, and all their talk of ‘mass invasion,’ and the spreading of fear of an upcoming ‘civil war’ in our country, it’s obvious they remain radical.”

Stolen thunder

Strache has also made deft use of the internet, with more Facebook “fans” than any other party leader. Until earlier this year he was on a roll, dreaming perhaps of becoming chancellor.

In December 2016, the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer came close to being elected as Europe’s first far-right president since 1945, and the party was topping national polls.

But in May Kurz, just 31, took over the center-right People’s Party and leapfrogged the Freedom Party into first place in the polls — thanks partly to moving rightward and stealing many of Strache’s policies.

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, the leader of the Austrian Peoples Party, October 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Strache, poking fun at “late bloomer” Kurz, and presenting himself as the “visionary,” struggled to recover. But at least now he has brought his party into government — for how long, only time will tell.

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