Internal divisions are beginning to show in Austria’s far-right Freedom Party following their disappointing showing at the Austrian elections two weeks ago. The election, fought amidst the fallout of the Ibiza Affair, strengthened the position of Sebastian Kurz and threw the Freedom Party into yet further disarray.
Tensions between disgraced former leader Heinz-Christian Strache and the current Freedom Party leadership were been blown into the public domain after the party deselected Strache’s wife Philippa in an effort to stop her taking a seat in parliament. Heinz-Christian Strache responded by indicating that he would receive popular support in the country should he form a breakaway party, indicating his belief that his personal popularity is superior to that of the Freedom Party as a whole.
The situation took yet another turn when electoral authorities in Vienna ruled that Mrs Strache was entitled to still take her seat in parliament, despite the Freedom Party attempt at deselection. Sources close to the Strache indicate that she will reject the FPO and form her own block in parliament, bringing about a potential full split of the Austrian far-right. Party officials believe Mr Strache may make an attempt at a political comeback by contesting the election for Mayor of Vienna in 2022, splitting the party in the same way Jörg Haider did in 2005.
The fall of both the previous Austrian government and Heinz-Christian Strache came in May following the leak of a 2017 video filmed in Ibiza showing Strache seeking political funding from a fake relative of Russian oligarch Igor Makarov in exchange for contracts. The video also showed Strache openly discussing ways to avoid financing laws and suggesting he would be willing to ensure that the woman would be able to take control of an Austrian tabloid newspaper in order to suppress press freedoms. Strache indicated that such practices were common amongst donors to the Freedom Party.
The origin of the leaked video has never been definitely determined, leading to the FPO suggesting it was the inside work of political opponents or international enemies, with some suggesting the hand of Mossad in the original sting operation. The party seemingly deflected attention away from the actual allegations and gained some sympathy amongst voters, coming to see the Ibiza Affair as political trickery and deep state chicanery.
Despite running their election campaign with slogans such as “They’re against him because he’s for you,” the legal consequences of the video were much harder to deflect. The Austrian police carried out multiple raids against property connected with Strache in August, including both his personal home and property in the Tyrolean Alps. On the eve of the election itself, a former bodyguard of Strache revealed details of a huge expenses fund that paid for perks for Strache and his wife, the value of the fund being in excess of €10,000 a month.
“[The FPO] is a party that has long been rocked by scandal — they are universally prone to corruption and infighting. The question is how much the Freedom party’s political narrative — and those of other rightwing parties in Europe — has already been taken up into the mainstream so that it doesn’t really even matter if they are in government any more” – Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels.Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels.
Much of the future direction of the movement in the country depends on two opposing views of Heinz-Christian Strache, with loyalists insisting that he is both widely popular within the Freedom Party and amongst the general public. Critics, however, contend that his conduct in office was primarily responsible for the poor showing of the party in the September elections and the Ibiza Affair makes him electorally toxic.
Voters abandoned the Freedom Party in their droves at the September 29 elections, with the FPO receiving a mere 16.2% of the vote compared to the 26% they received in 2017. The Party trailed some considerable distance behind the People’s Party on 37.5% and the Social Democrats with 21.2%.