What lies behind Kurz’s defence of the far-right FPÖ

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) and Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (R) speak during a press statement after the government meeting at the Schloss Seggau in Leibnitz, Styria, Austria, 05 January 2018. [EPA-EFE/FLORIAN WIESER]

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz intends for his government to be “measured by its actions”, just as Angela Merkel said it should be. Nevertheless, the young leader still has some explaining to do when it comes to his coalition partners. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The inaugural visit by Austria’s conservative Chancellor Kurz (ÖVP) to Germany still continues to have an effect. The international attention the leader of a small European country has enjoyed is not only related to his age and his refugee policies, but also to his announcement of “changes” in the implementation of political objectives and the way he has shaken up the political landscape.

His appearance on Sandra Maischberger’s German talk show has made it clear that he is being challenged to defend his governing partners the FPÖ. Criticism against the far-right party run by Heinz-Christian Strache ranges from its membership of the Eurosceptic ‘Europe of Nations and Freedom group (ENF) in the European Parliament to its ideological proximity to National Socialism.

2018 not comparable with 2000

It was almost exactly 18 years ago when the conservative ÖVP formed a government with the FPÖ for the first time. Austria was named and shamed for it. Back then, the EU even imposed sanctions on the Alpine republic, a kind of political quarantine – which, however, was withdrawn very quickly, almost secretly, when the then Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel presented a considerable and recognised reform policy.

The then National Council President and recognised constitutional lawyer Andreas Khol created his own report, which culminated in the ruling that the FPÖ indeed lies within the constitutional framework. This report is still valid today and Kurz can point out that the FPÖ in no way violates the Prohibition Act.

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In contrast to the year 2000, the formation of the latest government went rather smoothly. At EU level, people made their peace with the fact that the Austrian ÖVP-FPÖ coalition is in line with the democratic will of the electorate and that the SPÖ and its former Chancellor, Christian Kern, took themselves out of the game.

In response to a question by EURACTIV over whether the government should draw up and distribute a document on “political reasoning” in light of its alliance with a right-wing populist party, Kurz’s inner circle stated that it was not necessary at this time. After all, there is no boycott and no big debate in Europe. Rather, the government will use the upcoming state visits as an opportunity for “outreach”.

When the SPÖ financially supported the FPÖ

However, a document written in 2000 by former Foreign Minister Alois Mock, which was seen by EURACTIV and presented to the leading conservative politicians at the time as background information, shows interesting historical facts in connection with the FPÖ.

The party was founded in 1955, understood itself as a representation of the so-called “Third Camp”, traditionally referring to the German national and national-liberal electorate in Austria. Today it sees itself in the heritage of a national-liberal value system.

Back then, the party also saw itself as a committed pro-European party and was the first party to argue for membership in the European Economic Community (EEC), which, solely because of the Soviet ‘Nyet, remained only a marginal note in the parliamentary protocol.

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The predecessor of the FPÖ, the Association of Independents (VdU) was founded in 1949. It was not just about giving former Nazi sympathisers access to the democratic system and incorporating them into society, allowing them to participate in the opinion-forming process. In fact, the VdU enjoyed special (including financial) support from influential SPÖ circles, like then Interior Minister Oskar Helmer.

With this, the Social Democrats wanted to confront the People’s Party as a serious political competitor and scare off its voters, after the ÖVP achieved an absolute majority in the first post-World War II elections.

In 1964, it was the Socialist Union President Franz Olah who sought to promote the weak FPÖ with funds from the Austrian Trade Union Federation. Until 1970, of course, every chancellor came from the ÖVP.

Step-ladder function

In 1970, the SPÖ with Bruno Kreisky won the upper hand for the first time. But it was only enough for a minority government. In order to secure political survival, Kreisky formed a silent alliance with… the FPÖ.

At its helm was Friedrich Peter, a former SS member, which did not prevent Kreisky from handing him an electoral reform in return for his support. The threshold for entering the Austrian parliament was lowered from five to four percent so that the FPÖ did not have to fear at every ballot that it might not make it into the chamber.

When Kreisky lost his absolute majority in 1983, out of revenge he did not bring the ÖVP back to the government benches, but the FPÖ. For the first time in the history of the Second Austrian Republic, the SPÖ formed a coalition with the FPÖ. Norbert Steger became the first vice-Chancellor for the FPÖ.

In 1986, Jörg Haider replaced him as party leader and sent signals in the direction of the People’s Party. Which incidentally led to the fact that the SPÖ  voted never again to enter a coalition with the FPÖ.

Power loss created the enemy

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had no fear of contact with an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. In the early 1980s, he advised the People’s Party in private talks over and over again to try it even with a small coalition. The preference for grand coalitions, even if it meant playing second fiddle in the government, was upheld by the ÖVP until the end of the century.

After failing to find a consensus in negotiations with the SPÖ in 2000, Schüssel dared to leap into the unknown (contacts with the FPÖ) and thereby attracted the wrath of the European Social Democratic camp. The loss of power could have been taken as an opportunity to condemn the party, which had been used again and again as a step-ladder to power.

Austria and Germany: An old quarrel that never dies

During the refugee crisis, Austria’s then foreign minister and now Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has emerged as a fierce Merkel critic. During his inaugural visit to Berlin this week, it became clear that their differences aren’t going anywhere, writes EURACTIV Germany’s partner Der Tagesspiegel.

In fact, the FPÖ has cultivated the right-wing populist image in recent years with pithy slogans and martial appearances. Last but not least, the party was able to attract more workers’ votes in the last National Council elections than the SPÖ, a traditional labour party.

But the past does catch up with the FPÖ occasionally. Strache said four months ago that the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina had no real right to exist and that the separatist Republika Srpska should be recognised. He finds himself in good company with the writer Peter Handke, a darling of left-wing writers, who openly aligned themselves with the Serbian nationalists and demanded more justice for Serbia.

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