European voters grow discontent with traditional parties
By Elisabeth Dantendorfer
Sept. 29, 2013, Austrian Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) campaign headquarters: The results of the National Council elections will be out any minute. Everybody is listening to the newscaster: “The Freedom party polled 20.51 percent.” Austria’s right-wing populist party increased its share by almost three percent and came very close to the second-ranked People’s Party. TV live broadcasting shows cheering party-members.
Now, two months after the elections a poll conducted by Der Standard found that if the elections were held today, the FPÖ would probably win.
Popularity of Austria’s right wing party is on the rise, part of a European trend. The economic crisis, high rates of unemployment, rising immigration evoking xenophobia and EU-skepticism all play into the hands of the right wing.
The FPÖ is a direct successor of the Federation of Independents (VdU), which was established after the Second World War, in 1949. The VdU gave Nazis and their sympathizers the kind of home the other post-war parties such as the Conservatives or Socialists did not.
Since the 1970s, several leaders tried to steer the party in a more moderate, free-market conservative direction. In 2005, the party split into the FPÖ and the more liberal BZÖ. FPÖ party leader Heinz-Christian Strache’s success pushed the BZÖ into insignificance at the last election.
Since then, the FPÖ struggles with inner-party tensions, between the far and the moderately right wing. The FPÖ advocates EU skepticism, argues against a centralist European government and opts for strict regulations of immigrant numbers. It emphasizes national identity, encourages traditional heterosexual family values and focuses on the Christian tradition of Europe.
Its program states that, “Austria is not a country of immigration” and people who apply for a citizenship need to adapt to Austrian culture and customs. Despite several attempts, the FPÖ declined an interview with theLoop.
Right-wing advocates do not only conceive immigration as a cultural threat, but also as increased competition on the job market, themes attractive to young people.
“Young people are more inclined to follow new parties. Young voters are opting more than old voters for the far right and also for the new left parties,” Anton Pelinka, professor of political science at the Central European University in Budapest and expert in the field of right-wing extremism and xenophobia in society said in an interview with The Loop.
However, the FPÖ party program doesn’t only appeal to native Austrians. Particularly in Vienna, the Freedom Party has found fans amongst immigrant communities such as the Serbs and second generation Turks.
Although his family originally came from Turkey, Ileli Necati is born in Vienna and considers himself Austrian. He now works in his family-owned restaurant Lokanta Oase at Brunnenmarkt and finds the right wing’s party program appealing.
Even though he concedes that his family profited from immigration, he wants tougher regulations on the numbers of immigrants entering the country. “The borders still have not been closed, although more and more foreign workers come to Austria, like we did,” he said.
This shows that the right wing is capable of attracting people from countries with Muslim background, even though Strache has consistently held Muslim-critcal positions. In a podcast from the FPÖ’s official website, he stated that his party opposes full acceptance of Turkey into the EU.
“Vienna must not become Istanbul”
In 2005, posters around Vienna showed Strache with the slogan: “Vienna must not become Istanbul.” In 2010, the FPÖ campaigned against the Social Democrats, stating “We protect free women, the SPÖ protects compulsory headscarves.”
EU skepticism could also be a major issue in the upcoming European Parliament elections, Pelinka said; warning that if more right-wing parties gained control of more governments in Europe, the EU’s cohesion could be threatened.
“This is a challenge for the European integration process because what unites all far-right parties is the anti-EU position. It is not a good perspective for further integration at the European level,“ he said. On the other side, Reuters stated that many political experts think that predictions of popularity of right and far-right wing parties have been overstated.
Due to FPÖ pressure, integration has become a vital topic for every party program in Austria. Both the Social Democrats and the People’s Party have adopted tougher immigration laws and emphasized the necessity of teaching German to immigrants. Their coalition backs deportation of rejected asylum seekers and favors stricter regulation of immigration.
The party gained momentum like this once before. In 1999, it polled 26.91 percent of votes, making the FPÖ the second strongest party, head-to-head with the ÖVP. Once it joined the government coalition with the ÖVP, popularity dropped and continued to sink in the following years. Pelinka said that the party could certainly again reach the maximum of votes it had in 1999.
Far-right parties extend popularity throughout Europe
View Successful right-wing parties in Europe in a larger map
As in Austria, far-right parties are gaining throughout Europe. In France, surveys showed that the Front National might be the strongest French party in the European Parliament elections in May 2014. In Sweden, the right-wing Sweden Democrats are in Parliament, and in Norway the Progress party is in a ruling coalition with the Conservative party.
In an effort to increase his strength throughout the continent, Strache organized a meeting of six right-wing parties this November in Vienna. There, party leaders from Austria, Sweden, France, Belgium, Italy and Slovakia planned for the 2014 European Parliament elections with a view to building a strong alliance.
Though they share a common ideology, the various parties have different approaches. The Freedom Party in Austria opposes same-sex marriages, whereas Geert Wilders from the Dutch Party for Freedom supports them. The Dutch party said it wants to ban the Quran, but both the Front National and the FPÖ oppose such a measure. Wilders’ party was not present at the meeting in Vienna; however, a separate meeting with the FPÖ is in planning.
Pelinka says the European Parliament elections in May could mean a big shift of power, but several political scientists think it more likely that the right-wing parties to have successes in their respective home-countries first. Still, most agree that the right wing will continue to gain popularity. They are conflicted as to how far their potential goes.
The challenge for other parties is whether they can tackle issues that the right wing dominates without abandoning their principles – in Austria as well as in the rest of Europe.