VIENNA, Austria (AFP) — Alternative for Germany became the third-biggest party in the Bundestag last month but its far-right Austrian ally, the Freedom Party, has a shot at sharing power after elections on Sunday.
The FPOe, one of Europe’s most established nationalist parties, is forecast to come second or third and could become junior coalition partners to Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives.
Founded in 1956, the FPOe emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched after World War II by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights.
The party, whose first chief was an ex-officer from the Waffen SS, also drew pan-Germanists — believers in unifying with Germany like in the Third Reich — and liberals fed up with the ruling centrist establishment.
Over the decades, the FPOe increasingly encroached on two main parties, the Social Democrats (SPOe) and conservative People’s Party (OeVP), which have dominated post-war Austrian politics.
In the early 1980s, the FPOe was briefly taken over by liberals and in 1983 made its first entry to the national stage in a coalition with the SPOe.
But voters were deeply unimpressed — the party obtained only 1.2 percent at legislative polls in 1986 — its worst ever result.
Heute vor 9 Jahren starb Jörg Haider, ein großer Europäer und Patriot. pic.twitter.com/vdX73ChnHw
— Baron Dellingshausen (@freiherr68) October 11, 2017
Just as the FPOe hit rock bottom that year, in swept Joerg Haider, the charismatic but controversial son of a former Nazi party official.
Under his flamboyant leadership, the party reinvented itself as a formidable populist force thriving on xenophobic and anti-EU slogans.
Haider boosted support for the FPOe six-fold, earning it a stunning second place in the 1999 elections with nearly 27 percent, behind only the Social Democrats.
After talks with the SPOe collapsed, the far-right formed a government with the OeVP in 2000. This sparked international protests and turned the country into an EU pariah.
Haider became governor of Carinthia state in 1989 but was forced to resign shortly afterwards for praising the Third Reich’s “orderly” employment policy.
A decade later, the media-savvy orator was re-elected and remained at Carinthia’s helm until he died in a drink-driving accident exactly nine years ago, on October 11, 2008.
Haider’s dubious legacy in Carinthia is still felt today. The small state only narrowly averted bankruptcy over debts stemming from his time in charge.
Five years of power-sharing with the conservatives had taken a heavy toll on the FPOe, with its support in opinion polls dipping to single digits in the mid-2000s.
Haider had tried to remedy the situation by purging the party’s extremist elements, but was increasingly pushed into a corner.
He eventually left to create a new movement, clearing the path for the FPOe’s new leader in 2005 — ambitious dental technician Heinz-Christian Strache.
The former member of a radical student fraternity had not been impressed with Haider’s more moderate approach and began to reintroduce what critics called openly racist slogans.
When the approach failed to translate into votes, FPOe strategist Herbert Kickl persuaded Strache to adopt a less contentious stance.
Taking a leaf from Marine Le Pen’s makeover of the National Front in France, Strache toned down his rhetoric and focused on social issues as the global economic crisis hit in 2008.
The FPOe began distancing itself from neo-Nazi, racist and anti-Semitic comments of some of its most prominent members, while also proving adept at using social media.
The strategy paid off in spades. Last year the party’s candidate Norbert Hofer narrowly lost a presidential runoff against Greens-backed economics professor Alexander Van der Bellen.
The FPOe was leading national opinion polls until earlier this year when Kurz, just 31, became head of the center-right People’s Party (OeVP).
By tacking right — introducing a full-veil ban and proposing benefits cuts for immigrants — Kurz has stolen supporters in droves from the FPOe.
This has incensed Strache, 48, who despite mocking Kurz as his “biggest fan” in slick television adverts, has been unable to recover the lost ground.
Strache could form a coalition with Kurz however and become deputy chancellor, although the clamor of 2000 is unlikely to be repeated.