For Europe, Austria’s Far Right Is a Harbinger of Things to Come

For Europe, Austria’s Far Right Is a Harbinger of Things to Come
The chairman of the Austrian Freedom Party, Herbert Kickl, speaks during a protest rally against measures to battle the coronavirus pandemic in Vienna, Austria, Dec. 11, 2021 (AP photo by Florian Schroetter).

For anyone following and analyzing Austrian politics during the 1990s, there was no escaping the steady rise of Jorg Haider. After taking over the Freedom Party of Austria, or FPO, in 1986, Haider profoundly polarized the country’s politics through campaigns that played on widespread xenophobia and resentment against an entrenched political establishment. The FPO’s emergence as an electoral force challenged the deeply corrupt duopoly enjoyed by the social-democratic SPO and Christian-democratic OVP parties in postwar Austria with a disruptive intensity whose impact is still felt to this day.

Though he never quite managed to achieve his dream of becoming Austrian chancellor, Haider’s momentum in the 1990s seemed unstoppable at times. The speed with which his vicious targeting of minorities drew support from working-class and lower-middle-class voters that had previously been loyal to the SPO and OVP upended Austrian politics, presaging an electoral realignment that then unfolded across the rest of Europe.

The fact that Haider’s parents had been fervent supporters of the Nazi party before 1945 and that his own rise had begun in organizations with a long history of pan-German far-right politics meant that he was distrusted by many Austrians who remained fearful of a resurgence of authoritarianism. However, this background gave Haider credibility among far-right milieus that remained a looming presence in Austrian society. And his underlying charisma enabled him to broaden his appeal to social groups that had until then maintained their distance from extremist politics.

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