Unmarred By Russian Spying Scandal, Austria's Far-Right Expected To Cruise To Victory In European Elections


(MENAFN- The Conversation) For the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the weeks are going by like clockwork. The far-right party continues to top the polls. It is expected to clinch a comfortable victory in the European elections on 9 June with almost 27% of the vote, well ahead of the Social Democrats of the SPÖ (23%) and the conservatives of the ÖVP, currently in power (21%).

What's more, polls also put the FPÖ in first place in the country's legislative elections in September, with 30% of the vote (compared with 21% for the SPÖ and 20% for the ÖVP). To the party's leaders, these encouraging predictions represent a historic opportunity to place one of their own in the post of Chancellor for the first time, a position held since 2021 by an ÖVP representative, Karl Nehammer.

The FPÖ, which was founded in 1956 and took off when it was led by the firebrand Jorg Haïder (1986-2000), has a history of reaching the gates of power without crossing it . The party reached second place in the elections of 1957, 1980, 2010 and 2022, and has participated in three government coalitions since its creation, the first with the Social Democrats between 1983 and 1986, the second and third with the conservatives of the ÖVP from 2000 to 2006, and from 2017 to 2019. But its leaders and activists sense the tide may have decisively turned in their favour.

Unsinkable popularity?

The FPÖ's image seems to have come out largely unscathed from the Egisto Ott spying scandal , which has been rocking the country since March.

A former domestic intelligence official, Egisto Ott was arrested on 29 March on suspicion of having passed on information to Russia in exchange for money. He is also alleged to have communicated the telephone data of three senior officials of the Austrian interior ministry to Moscow: Michael Kloibmüller (former head of the interior minister's private office), Michael Takacs (now director of the federal police) and Gernot Maier (head of the federal office for foreign affairs and asylum).

It is believed the affair unfolded during the period when the FPÖ's current president, Herbert Kickl, was interior minister. According to the Austrian press and the initial findings of the investigation , Ott began leaking information in 2017, when the FPÖ was in power in coalition with the ÖVP. Could Kickl have been unaware of his actions? This question remains unanswered for the time being.

The FPÖ's opponents were quick to point to possible ideological ties between Egisto Ott and the party, citing the party's long-standing“complacency” toward Vladimir Putin's Russia. To date, the police are trying to establish the link between the FPÖ and Ott. The FPÖ has rejected the accusations as a smear campaign.

The FPÖ and Russia's long history

What is certain is that the close relations between the FPÖ and Russia are not new. In December 2016, the FPÖ and Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia, signed a Friendship treaty (Freundschaftsvertrag). The accord's main aim was to organise exchanges between the FPÖ and United Russia and to set up partisan cooperation both at the ideological and organisational levels. Austrian and Russian delegations were to meet regularly and strengthen this cooperation.

A few months ago, however, Herbert Kickl explained that this treaty was no longer valid and, on the FPÖ's side, was even considered null and void. Another leading figure in the FPÖ, Norbert Hofer, echoed him by stressing that the treaty had been concluded at a time when the Russian president was acceptable to many:

Nevertheless, the FPÖ and Russia have long enjoyed a close rapport. In 2018, the then FPÖ foreign affairs minister invited Vladimir Putin to her wedding and, notoriously, danced with the Russian president. One year later, she left the government, and in 2021, landed a position on the board of directors of the Russian oil group Rosneft. In 2023, she moved to Russia to run a think tank .


Vladimir Putin dances with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl on 18 August 2018 at her wedding. Kremlin

Since February 2022, the FPÖ has repeatedly argued against sanctions against Russia . Even today, Herbert Kickl continues to argue that these sanctions only postpone the hope of a possible negotiation between Ukrainians and Russians, and are detrimental to Austrian interests.

The FPÖ's aggressive European campaign

It is in a very particular context that the FPÖ has thrown itself into the battle of the European elections. In the 2019 elections , the party had to content itself with third place at“only” 17.2% of the vote, far behind the ÖVP and the SPÖ, which had respectively obtained 34.6% and 23.9%. This time, the European elections in June could well result in a clear victory for the far-right party. If the polls prove accurate, the FPÖ could come close to its best ever score in all national elections, achieved in the 1999 European elections with 27.53%.

For this election, the FPÖ has chosen to renew its confidence in a seasoned politician, Harald Vilimsky, who was appointed at the start of January to head the list for the third time after 2014 and 2019. Vilimsky is a leading figure in the movement, having served as a member of the National Council (2006-2014) and as a Member of the European Parliament since 2014.

Also on the FPÖ list is Petra Steger, the daughter of former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Norbert Steger, leader of the FPÖ from 1980 to 1986. Like her father, Petra Steger is considered to be more of a moderate liberal within the party , although on many issues she happily embraces the movement's conservative positions. Having her on its list is therefore a way for the FPÖ to strike a middle ground between the party's traditional, and rather radical, electorate, and a more moderate one.

At a March press conference , Herbert Kickl reiterated his desire to fight against“the migration of peoples” from Africa and the Arab world, and against Austria's loss of sovereignty to the EU. For his part, Harald Vilimsky hammered home the point that Europe's“elites” were“out of touch with the aspirations of the people” and that the only way to remedy this was to slip an FPÖ ballot paper into the ballot box. Since his election to the European Parliament in 2014, Vilimsky has become a champion in Austria of the fight against“European and Brussels centralism”.

In these European elections, the FPÖ's programme is aggressive and unambiguous. Entitled “EU-Wahnsinn Stoppen” (Halt to the madness of the EU), it does not advocate Austria leaving the EU, but calls for in-depth reform of the Union and an end to all of Brussel's“political excesses”. The key measures advocated include cutting red tape within the EU an immediate halt to what is thought to be an out-of-control immigration, and zero tolerance of illegal asylum applications and tighter border control.


Harald Vilimsky in front of a campaign poster, 22 May 2024. FPÖ

Leading in the opinion polls makes the FPÖ the main target of its opponents in the SPÖ and ÖVP; the latter, who fear that their electorate will shift to the FPÖ, are the most virulent. The head of the ÖVP list, Reinhold Lopatka, stresses that, unlike the FPÖ, he and his party see the EU as a partner rather than an adversary. He also openly accuses the FPÖ and Harald Vilimsky of being Vladimir Putin's “outstretched arm” and of seeing the EU only as an“enemy”. These criticisms have not, however, prevented the ÖVP from taking up political themes dear to the FPÖ, starting with the fight against immigration and asylum applications.

Can the FPÖ still lose?

Contrary to what you might think, a majority of Austrians have a rather negative view of the future of the EU, which could well“suit” the FPÖ. According to a poll published in the Der Standard newspaper on 6 May, 63% of those questioned believe that the EU is moving in the wrong direction – a figure that is not reassuring for the ÖVP and SPÖ, who are still hoping to wrest first place from the FPÖ just a few weeks before the elections.

As things stand, nothing seems to be able to halt the FPÖ's irresistible rise. It has been able to withstand accusations of closeness to Russia and the Egisto Ott affair. What's more, the party is banking on a certain weariness and even distrust of the political leaders currently in power, and from the internal political disputes of the two major traditional parties. Austrians are yearning for real change, which – at least they think – is the only thing the FPÖ could potentially offer.

This article was originally published in French



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