When the Austrian Freedom Party was given a seat at the table of Austrian government and politics in 2000, the international community’s jaw-dropped. The voice against democracy was given a seat at the table and the threat became real—Western European democracies had a legit adversary.
The democratic institution is a fragile one, as its electoral process allows voters to choose between partisan ideas. Sometimes, they can choose wrong. They choose populists. Populism is an exclusionary form of identity politics that spouts antiestablishment ideals. It is a politics stance that is hard to define as it characterizes a range of political positions that emphasize the idea of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite.” It is an “illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism” (Muller, 2016).
The Freedom Party of Austria is a right-wing populist and national-conservative party whose resurgence in recent years is a cause of great concerns. The very existence of the party exposes the vulnerability of the country’s democratic republic as its rhetoric and platform is the antithesis of democratic ideals and principles.
The Austrian Freedom Party, though founded in 1956, has been increasing in relevancy as its spouting of antidemocratic rhetoric has not only increased its support but has increased its power and influence as members find themselves elected to positions of power. (Issacharoff, 2007). Populist sympathizers are growing more skeptical of the norms and institutions of liberal democracy, pointing towards a future of growing political polarization and increasing democratic fragility (Eiermann, 2017). They tend to see their country’s recent development in a negative light and tend to be more pessimistic about the future.
When Jörg Haider took over the FPÖ in 1986, the party transformed into one of the first and most successful populist far right parties in Europe. Its focus shifted to anti-migration issues and identity politics. The new direction was based on the exclusion of the “ethnic other,” which soon became one of the core issues around which the party built its electoral success (Hafez, Heinisch, and Milklin, 2019). In 2005, the party came under the leadership of Heinz-Christian Strache. Under Strache, anti-Islamic rhetoric started to play a prominent role in the party’s communication, presenting Muslims arguably as the primary “targets” in the party’s anti-immigration strategies. Under Strache, the party became a more trumped-up version of what it was before, becoming more explicit in its disdain for Muslims—and it paid off (Hafez, 2019).
On February 4, 2000, the FPO entered the Austrian government via coalition. The initial shockwaves were soothed with reassurance that ideals were a temporary phenomenon by the response of other democracies. The United States and 14 European Union members unilaterally ended the cultural exchange and joint military exercises with the country (Biswas, 2020). The message was sent: the Western world will not tolerate the advancement of populist agenda and rhetoric. The seat FPO was given in Austria’s legislature was short-lived, lasting only until 2005. However, almost 21 years later, the FPO is gaining in relevance and political power again, and the democracies of the world have seemingly gone silent. In 2017, little attempt was made to ostracize the country after the party, under the leadership of Strache, captured 26% of votes in the 2017 election (Biswas, 2020). Following the election in 2019, the FPO became the third largest of the five parties in Austria’s National Council—with 30 of the 183 seats and won 16.2% of votes cast (Biswas, 2020).
The success the Austrian FPO has found is different from the success of other populist parties in other countries. It is more energetic and robust, because the FPO has tapped the country’s youth. While populist political candidates in the U.S., France, and Germany have underperformed among young voters, the bulk of their support coming from middle-aged and older constituents, the FPO “has won the highest vote share among voters below 30. It has performed almost twice as well among young voters as the Social Democrats. In contrast, the FPÖ is weakest among voters over the age of 60, with 19% of the vote compared to the SPÖ’s 34% and the ÖVP’s 36%” (Eiermann, 2017)
The resurgence of the Austrian Freedom Party in 2017 illuminates a new normal in European and Western government—a political setting that includes a voice of populism.
Mainstream political parties and national governments are less able and willing to explicitly confront populist parties. Moreover, the far-right movement has found an energetic and steady base among the country’s youth. In short, the FPO is not going away anytime soon.
The inability of Austria’s political leaders and world leaders of democratic countries to make an example of the resurging far-right is consequential for two reasons. First, if Austria’s main political parties were to come out and condemn the movement, they would alienate a group that has been crucial to the FPO’s rise—the youth. Second, this signifies the establishment of a norm by allowing these parties with these kinds of messages to exist. A norm that could very well lead to the collapse of democratic ideals and teachings being salient with future generations.
The success of the FPÖ confirms patterns that have recently appeared in other European countries. “Today’s populist parties extol the virtues of strong and decisive leadership, share a disdain for established institutions, and express deep distrust of perceived experts and elites.” (Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, 2016). Populists in Europe have achieved success by building alternative political parties that can compete in national elections, and as shown in Austria, can now govern.
It will be some time before we see Austria completely disregard their democratic institution, or we might not even see it at all. It is important to note that this movement is gaining speed and relevance as the refusal of Western democracies and leaders to reprimand the politicians and younger generations of Austria’s population are finding salience in the populist platform. There is a viable threat being posed on the democratic institution in this country. The continued presence of FPO’s members in the legislature makes it clear that populism in Austria has not only found a place, but a voice.