The Far-Right in Austria; Or why ousting the current government won’t change an extreme consensus

On Monday May 27th, a no-confidence vote against chancellor Sebastian Kurz’ (ÖVP) provisional minority government was successfully held in Austrian parliament.[i] This vote followed a political crisis provoked by a video recently circulated, which shows former Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) and his close associate Johannes Gudenus (FPÖ) in a meeting with an alleged investor, discussing avenues for illicit party funding and campaign support. However, excessive jubilation over this outcome risks masking the long-standing problematic of Austria’s right-wing mode of business as usual.

Better than the movies: A video displaying Austrian political leader’s art of government

Social media channels fumed when a videorecently became known to public, showing FPÖ politicians Johannes Gudenus and Heinz-Christian Strache in summer 2017, prior to Austrian elections. In this video, former FPÖ leader Strache and his close associate Gudenus were discussing with an alleged investor about offering public contracts in exchange for electoral campaign support. Amongst other, the FPÖ politicians suggested the investor should gain control over the influential Austrian tabloid Krone Zeitung to boost their electoral success. The video also contains sequences discussing various channels for illicit party funding, e.g. via charities, which are kept out of the realm of public financial oversight. Had the video been a script-base for any HBO series, I am sure the scenario would have been binned for tapping into too clichéd masculinist representations of politicians doing dirty deals, in content as much as demeanor: based in a luxury villa in Ibiza, the video portrays the party melting on couches, well-served with booze, talking big for hours, mimicking gun-shooting, gossiping about the political ranks, while methodically envisioning future corrupt collaborations.

As soon as the news about the video was circulated, pretty much anyone up and down the country had formulated responses of all sorts, ranging from cynical this comes as no-surprise comments to statements full of pity for the FPÖ politicians, who, as some felt, had been cold-bloodedly led into a trap. Though less attended than I had hoped for, given the pressing circumstances, a spontaneous demonstration was held in front of the office of the Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP), who was then still in office, demanding the immediate removal of Vice-Chancellor Strache (FPÖ). However, the imminently awaited response of Sebastian Kurz kept being deferred. And what he had to say when he finally went public is revelatory about the normalized state of far-right consensus in Austria.

Deploying populist right-wing tactics: Ex-chancellor Kurz’ claim of victimhood

First and foremost, in claiming victimhood, Kurz resorted to right-wing populist tactics. Victimhood, however, is not a response. It is, if anything, the beginning of his electoral campaign that he essentially bases around his persona. He clearly attempts to shine as the charismatic leader, who has been taking much on his shoulders for Austria. Hence, a great deal of his speech was lamenting how, as head of the state, he fought to save the country’s face, how he kept swallowing down his coalition partner’s slippages, but “enough is enough”. The fact that he hardly ever bothered to seriously sanction FPÖ’s serial anti-Semitism and borderline game with hate-crime is turned into a heroic act of quiet sacrifice.

Most importantly, it diverts from the fact that their parties’ agenda marry well in so many aspects. Kurz maintained his contemplative inactivity when, on repeated occasions, FPÖ politicians propagated phrasings borrowing from national-socialist rhetoric in their party material and discourse. In one of the latest episodes, a rhyme play placedin a local party leaflet compared people to rodents, a comparison widely used in national-socialist propaganda, and his former interior minister Herbert Kickl (FPÖ)propagated asylum seekers should be “concentrated” in centers. These are not merely compromising “singular incidents”, as Sebastian Kurz referenced them in recent press statements, but they are the routine practice of the party the chancellor chose to work with in a far-right government coalition. And the fact that the ex-chancellor hardly troubled himself with drawing the line when necessary is an important evidence of his political priorities.

Not a victim: Sebastian Kurz’ unacknowledged responsibility in normalizing far-right consensus 

Far-right business as usual reaches beyond the unhampered permissibility of FPÖ’s discourse and activities. After all, Sebastian Kurz consciously decided to work in coalition with a party, which has a long-standing history of mismanagement and deviation of public funds, regular lawsuits for hate-crimes and for the party’s connections to the neo-nazi scene – the list could go on endlessly. Unsurprisingly, the ex-Chancellor’s first address and subsequent statements indicated no wider political commitmentsbeyond his demand for Strache’s and Gudenus’ resignation, along with FPÖ minister of the interior Herbert Kickl, whom he designated unfit to undertake impartial investigations into the case, as he served as FPÖ party secretary general in 2017.

Hence, Kurz’ dismissal of the FPÖ was essentially tactical. But at the level of content, the FPÖ stances most suitably align with his own political agenda. “Enough is enough”, the self-proclaimed martyr announced in his address. And in the next line he stressed the pride he takes in the excellent work achieved under this government, a line he kept repeating in any public statement since. And why should he deviate an inch from this stance? He is fully aware that, in his address, he is actively flirting with an electorate that willingly gave 57,5 % of their votes to right-wing content, and may do so again in the early elections that have been set for autumn 2019.

Against this background, this seems an excellent opportunity to revisit some of this government’s activity. Here are four examples for why it normalizes and consolidates an authoritarian right-wing agenda, besides its all-time core-business of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politics.

  1. Though not passed in parliament, a new law regulating public broadcast has been on its way. It would enable tighter political control of staff and content decisions, amongst other by strategically restructuring its funding. One option discussed has been the shift from an independent broadcasting fee to tax-based funding, which would entail that public television and radio would fall under the remit of government budgeting decisions, and hence secure a great deal of political influence.
  2. Worker’s rights have been severely undermined, amongst other by a rise of permissible working hoursfrom 8 to 12 hours. Though not formally set as standard for daily working time, which remains at 8 hours, it offers industry a new legally secured standard to ask from employees – on a “purely voluntary” basis, as the government likes to underline, in defense of the regulation, yet without any proper safeguard against licensing in case of conflict. Despite one of the largest demonstrations held in years the concerns of worker’s went unheard. The law was passed in an accelerated procedure, which disregarded the usual praxis of parliamentary consultation and consideration of relevant stakeholders (e.g. unions, employee representations). In times where the organization of the political bases is more urgent than ever, it further ensures that politics remains more than ever the business of only a few elites. More and more people, especially employed in industrial labor or service industry, are effectively disabled to organize politically for the sheer lack of time.
  3. In the domain of ecology, public scrutiny of large-scale construction projects has been curtailed by a new law. In a nutshell, it imposes major barriers for civil society to formally participate in ecological impact assessments of such projects (e.g. waste-management sites, road-building, industrial sites). It stipulates a required minimum of five joint associations, or a minimum of 100 registered members to be granted formal party status in the assessment procedure. As NGOs highlighted, this excludes a majority of environmental actors in Austria from having a formal say. The initial proposal also required the public disclosure of sensitive personal information about the members (such as name and address). However, this has been altered to requiring personal information to be deposited with a notary, placing a minimal safeguard from informal pressure on dissenting organizations.
  4. The government also implemented severe financial cut-backs for numerous organizations doing important ground-work against domestic violence. It strategically disavows the violence of patriarchal structures in Austria, which ties women in relations of dependency and structural disadvantage, be it through labor, family or migration policy. Instead, the FPÖ-ÖVP coalition instrumentalized every recent case of femicide as an opportunity to culturalize and racialize these cases, in order to single out particular persons as violent others who disrupt an otherwise supposedly emancipated society. Whereas this list could be endlessly prolonged, the discussion hopefully demonstrates the spectrum and gist of this far-right agenda’s core, which Sebastian Kurz has celebrated as much-needed reform work in his speech.

A puzzling political opposition: What political inaction reveals about far-right normalcy

Since the video became public, Johannes Gudenus has left the FPÖ and Heinz-Christian Strache has resigned from his Vice-Chancellor post. However, the latter remains an active party member, who just won a seat in EU-parliament with more than 37.000 first preference votes. Sebastian Kurz’ dismissal of FPÖ interior minister Herbert Kickl, resulted in the collective resignation of all FPÖ ministers as an act of protest. Kurz promptly replaced the ministers with so-called experts to navigate the next months but this government has now been ousted by a – rather unique – no-confidence votein parliament.

This move is a temporary victory for oppositional politics, although it could only succeed with the support of the FPÖ, that is getting ready for Autumn’s election. However, a range of considerations add much bitterness to this outcome, especially with regard to long-established problems in the Austrian political landscape.

Austria remains a country in which nearly 60% of the electorate has voted for a far-right agenda, and a large proportion was fully supportive of the core racist agenda that dominated the electoral campaign. Though not a perfect mirror for Autumn’s re-elections, the EU elections assured a gain for ÖVP candidates and the core-electorate of the FPÖ has remained fairly stable. In sum, voters seem to happily call for business as usual, regardless of the recent revelations. However, the success in passing the no-confidence motion slows down the alarming tempo of political reforms and creates some space to organize and reach out differently. In particular, it opens avenues for strengthening existing and initiate more oppositional momentum which refuses to be subsumed under established party logics. This has entailed the building of networks around weeklyanti-government protests that were held since the government’s inauguration as much as a range of existing and newly formed initiatives which address a range of pressing societal concerns.[ii]

The largest political party in opposition, the Austrian Social Democrats (SPÖ), have spent the past 17 months in denial of their oppositional role. The party is in a state of paralysis as their shift to the right has not succeeded in recuperating FPÖ’s successful recruitment of their traditional worker’s electorate. And it has no tangible goal beyond fishing the pond. The fact that they were a driving force behind the vote of no-confidence is a cosmetic change in tactics, but it has little to say about the substantive agenda they will pursue. In interviews, disappointment with the now ex-Chancellor’s “lack of dialogue” repeatedly figured as the core criticism which led up to their submission of a vote of no-confidence. But the SPÖ had refrained from making any wider substantive critique or claims. They did not seize the moment to call for wider discussions about the structural and political dimensions which led up to this situation. Neither was there any particular emphasis on the need for change in future.

The vote of no-confidence has not been supported by the liberal oppositional party Neos, who seem to be cautiously nurturing avenues for a future coalition with the ex-chancellor’s party ÖVP. Despite earlier critique in public broadcast, the leader of Neos immediately stated they would not support the vote, regarding it a catalyst for instability. Instead, they chose to situate themselves as a force that has an interest in stabilizing that country and that would be closely watching the then still Chancellor’s efforts in building trust. What this effort should entail, was kept vague in order not to spoil future political alliances. And Liste Jetzt, a party committed to revealing government scandals of all sorts, will most likely suffer from the amnesiac electorate in Autumn.

Meantime, Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) seems not too fussed about the vote’s outcome, although at first, he prophesied that skies would fall from heaven and the country would disappear into chaos after his departure. His little smirk foreshadows that he knows what many may not want to see: the reliability of Austria’s right-wing business as usual.

[i]The far-right government that successively collapsed in the past ten days or so, was formed by the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ). Whereas the FPÖ is commonly referred to as right-wing extremist, I propose to stop referring to the current political constellation amongst the ÖVP as merely “centre-right” or “conservative”. Instead I think it is crucial to consider this party as an important force in normalizing far-right agendas as “centrist”, as discussed in this article.

[ii]A range of initiatives could be named here, which currently all do very important organizing work in various communities, be it in matters of anti-racist politics, no-border and anti-deportation activism, politics of socio-economic solidarity, socio-ecological activism, lgbtqi* and queer of colour critique and many other issues.

  1 comment for “The Far-Right in Austria; Or why ousting the current government won’t change an extreme consensus

  1. Colt
    31 May 2019 at 2:08 pm

    Thank you for this very instructive article !

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