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A Near-Miss in Austria? Maybe Not

Norbert Hofer must have been shocked when he heard the final result. The right-winger lost a presidential election he seemed to have had in the bag. In the end, just 31,026 votes separated him from rival Robert Van der Bellen of the Green Party. The postal votes won it for the Green. All the “rootless cosmopolitans” who mailed in their votes seemed to have decided the outcome.

Many Europeans got rather worked up about the idea that Hofer would win the election. Yes, the Austrian president’s job is largely ceremonial. Still: the Freedom Party candidate threatened to turn the role into something more substantial. He pledged to sack the current Austrian government for its policy on refugees. It was unclear what would happen after that.

That sounds scary. As does the fact that nearly half of Austrians have voted for a man from a party whose first leader, Anton Reithalter, was an SS brigade commander with a long career in the Reichstag.

But a look back at the Freedom Party’s history shows that cynicism, and not fascism, has been its dominant ideology. It was founded by those who had been shut out of the two big post-war parties: the center-right Austrian People’s Party and the Social Democrats. So it included a lot of liberals. And for a while, they seemed to have won the ideological battle within the party. The Social Democrats invited the Freedom Party into government for the first time in 1983.

And then came Jörg Haider. In 1986, the lederhosen-wearing volkslied singer defeated deputy premier Norbert Steger, of the party’s liberal wing, in the competition for party leadership. The result was the collapse of the government — the Social Democrats couldn’t stand the idea of staying in government with a man of Haider’s ideological complexion.

Long before Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, Haider defined the right-wing populist style. He opposed the country’s entry into the European Union, instead supporting a union with big brother Germany, and once tried to unilaterally deport asylum seekers from the federation state he ruled, Kärnten.

For some time, Haider’s views made the Freedom Party unelectable to a majority on a national level. Austria reverted to its preponderant political arrangement, a coalition of the major parties. Haider’s decision to take his party further to the right seemed ill-counseled.

Gradually, however, Haider’s rhetoric became more popular. He did not change his tone — raw, rough, choleric — but his targets broadened. He stopped talking so much about immigration and focused on corruption. The two major parties, he declared, had turned the country into the Sicily of the north. Alpine Austria was becoming a dirty swamp. The working people were getting screwed by their political masters.

As he broadened his arguments, Haider won a significant clientele for his party for the first time ever. Former socialist workers began voting for the right. In 1994, the Freedom Party scored 22 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election.

The major parties had no proper response to Haider. They had been ruling the country together for decades. The one-and-a-half party system slowly disintegrated. And in 2000, the conservatives invited Haider to form a government.

The black and blue coalition, as it was known, accelerated the old coalition’s program of privatization. But it has become better known to posterity for its corruption scandals, many of which involved the Freedom Party. The anti-corruption campaigners of the 1990s became the tarnished elite of the new century.

The party’s ministers became embroiled in a litany of scandals. Finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser was accused of benefiting from the privatization of the postal service; then his fiancée had a car accident in a Porsche gifted to Grasser by his nominee for the board of two state-owned enterprises. The finance minister later told the tax office he hadn’t properly declared profits on investments while in government. Rumors of money laundering followed.

Haider, too, did not escape suspicion. The state bank in his home federation state, Hypo Alpe Adria, went bust and had to be nationalized during the financial crisis of 2009. Haider had promised to transform the institution into a financial colossus during his time as premier of Kärnten in the 1990s. Instead, the bank’s capital plunged from 25 billion Euros before the financial crisis to virtually nil during the economic slump.

Later it emerged that the bank had lost hundreds of millions of dollars in dubious speculations on offshore tax haven Jersey. And it turned out that an earlier merger between the bank and Bavaria’s state-owned BayernLB had benefited both Haider’s associates and his party.

Haider died in a car accident in 2008, before he could answer questions concerning corruption at Hypo. Accounts of his, worth millions of dollars, were reportedly discovered in Liechtenstein, a tiny kingdom next to Austria well known for its banking secrecy.

For a while, the scandals surrounding the far-right in Austria seemed to put off voters. The Freedom Party’s share of the vote fell back towards single digits in state elections. And then the refugee crisis began. Parliamentary polls showed the party in first place. Norbert Hofer’s presidential campaign boosted the Freedom Party’s ticket.

However, the behavior of the party in past coalition governments suggests that even if the populists do fill the chancellor’s post in 2018, they aren’t likely to send stormtroopers goose stepping through the halls of power. Judging by the party’s past behavior, once in office the populists are more likely to wreak financial havoc rather than plunge the Alpine country into social chaos.

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Charles McPhedran

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