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How Austria Is Set to Become the First European Country to Elect a Far-Right Leader Since WWII

The far right Freedom Party has worked hard to shed its Nazi legacy and thuggish image. Now, its candidate looks likely to become president of Austria.

by Katie Engelhart
May 20 2016, 8:10am

Austrian right wing Freedom Party top candidate Norbert Hofer and top candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, supported by The Greens

Last August, 71 disintegrating bodies were found in the back of a refrigerated delivery truck: abandoned on an unremarkable highway near the small Austrian town of Nickelsdorf. By the time the dead were discovered (locals were alerted by an overpowering stench) the corpses were so decayed, and so thoroughly soaked in bodily fluids, that standard fingerprinting techniques could not be used to identify them. The temperature in Nickelsdorf hovered near 90 degrees as investigators unloaded the victims: all refugees, smuggled over the Hungarian border.

In the days that followed, European border regulations were temporarily thrown to the wind, and thousands of migrants were permitted free passage west, through Hungary.

Nickelsdorf, a small border village of around 1,800, again found itself at the center of continental panic — as thousands of migrants walked into Austria through a nearby border crossing, and made their way into town.

"It was a terrible situation," said Gerhard Zapfl, Nickelsdorf's mayor. "The people got afraid. They didn't know what was happening." Many residents came out to help. Others locked themselves indoors and waited. Overnight, hundreds of taxis appeared from all over Austria, hawking rip-off rides to Vienna. In just six weeks, Zapfl says, around 300,000 migrants moved through Nickelsdorf.

Zapfl said he called parliament, and demanded to speak to the Chancellor — but that his calls were not returned. "I was left alone in this way. I had to organize trains for the refugees... The solution for this problem is in Europe, but for my municipality, it was very important that [the refugees] get out, that they don't stay here."

After a few days, the people of Nickelsdorf realized that the migrants had no intention of staying and that they were continuing on to more promising lands, like Germany and Sweden. They relaxed a bit. And the same pattern held true across Austria; of the 700,000 asylum seekers that moved through the country last year, just 90,000 made applications to stay. In a country of just 8.5 million, however, that makes Austria's asylum applicants per capita the second highest in Europe.

Zapfl said he had no problems with theft or criminality during those weeks, but that the migrants did leave behind a lot of garbage.

But something else had changed in Nickelsdorf, whose municipal council is dominated by the center-left Social Democratic Party. On August 24, in the first round of Austria's presidential elections, nearly half of the town cast ballots for the far-Right populist Freedom Party, which won a historic 35 percent of the national vote — making its candidate, Norbert Hofer, the favorite to win the presidency in this Sunday's second round.

If Hofer wins, as polls suggest he will, he will become Europe's first far right populist head of state since World War II: carried to power on the back of a party whose founding fathers included more than a few former Nazis with aspirations to rebuild a Greater Germany. A Freedom Party presidential victory could also trigger snap parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for 2018. As it stands, the Freedom Party is forecast to win those too, though it would be unlikely to gain a straight-up majority in government.

Austria's political center ground is left looking moribund. The two major centrist parties have run the political show since the mid-20th century — but even together, they won less than quarter of the first round vote. Days after the ballot results were revealed, Austria's Social Democratic Chancellor resigned in disgrace. On Sunday, Hofer will face off against Alexander van der Bellen, a Green Party-backed candidate.

The Austrian presidency is traditionally a ceremonial post, but Hofer advocates "a new understanding of the office." He has already threatened to dissolve parliament if the current government can't fix Austria's major problems with haste and to reject a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal with the United States, even if his parliament supported it. "You will be surprised by what can be done [by a president]," Hofer shrugged, in a recent TV debate.

Back in Nickelsdorf, Mayor Zapfl, a Social Democrat understands why his town voted the way it did, and he isn't surprised. His constituents' newfound affection for far-right populism, after a traumatic encounter with refugees, is a hard reality — but also a well-worn cliché.

Zapfl himself is frustrated with the government in Vienna, and resents federal officials for failing to help Nickelsdorf in its time of need. But he still won't vote for the Freedom Party.

Related: Anti-Fascists Clash With PEGIDA Movement in Vienna

In recent weeks, Hofer has portrayed his early victory as something inevitable: both a return to Austria's past and part of the country's inexorable march forward, towards the far right. His popularity, Hofer says, marks a "rendezvous with history."

Foreign coverage too has been quick to draw historical links: often with 1938, the year that Adolf Hitler (an Austrian) marched Nazi troops into Vienna to declare his Anschluss, or annexation of Austria, and some Austrians citizens ran into the street with flowers to greet them.

It hasn't helped that right-wing extremist violence is reportedly on the rise. The number of criminal incidents involving far right extremism has increased by over 50 percent since 2014, according to figures released this year by Austria's Interior Ministry, in response to a parliamentary inquiry.

But appeals to Austrian history ignore the fact that the Freedom Party pre-dates the refugee crisis by more than half a century and that the far right has always had a political presence in Austria at even its worst of times — unlike, say, the far right in Germany, which has historically been shut out of government. Appeals to history also ignore the way that the Freedom Party has changed over time, and adapted to meet modern Austrian voters where they are.

In the early 1980s, the Freedom Party — then a small radical party, with a distinctive neo-Nazi flavour — was rapidly shedding voters. But things turned around when the sprightly Jord Haider was elected in 1986, and the Freedom Party started inching towards the mainstream. It dropped its Nazi nostalgia (though Haider was known to throw the odd compliment Hitler's way) and its crudest racism. Its officials stopped speaking of long-ago Germanic tribes — and began to promote "Austria First!"

Party popularity swelled and in 2000, the Freedom Party entered the federal government as a junior coalition party. But it disappointed. "They couldn't do in government what they demanded when they were in the opposition," said Bernhard Weidinger, an Austrian historian. They were pragmatic and ceded ground to their coalition partners, and voters didn't care for it. The party lost the bulk of its support and, in 2005, split up.

That year, Heinz-Christian Strache, a trained dental technician who prefers the nickname "HC," took over what was left. He remains the head of the party today. Strache re-established the party's populist bent. He also added a strong dose of Euroskepticism, accusing elites in Vienna of sucking up to the powers in Brussels.

"Strache again put xenophobia at the top of the freedom party's political agenda and propaganda. That is still the case today," said the historian Weidinger. "The thing that is really new, if you compare the Freedom Party of the 90s to today, is the centrality of Islam." The Freedom Party's model antagonist took the shape of an ordinary Muslim — and then, more recently, a Muslim refugee. Strache has warned of the "Islamization" of Austrian culture. "We want to keep a Christian culture for our children," he implores.

The Freedom Party has also taken pains to shed its Nazi legacy — by courting Jewish voters. This has been a difficult sell. The Israeli Foreign Ministry officially boycotts the Freedom Party, and Strache himself caused outrage in the country in 2012, when he posted an anti-Semitic cartoon on his Facebook page. (It was a classic: a greedy banker with a hooked-nose and Star of David cufflinks, growing rich from Europe's financial crisis.) But just last month, Strache brought a delegation of colleagues to Israel to meet with members of the right-wing Likud party and to tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem.

Since Strache's election, the Freedom Party has also been helped along by its ideologically fluidity — its willingness to borrow from Left and Right, as it suits the political moment. "The classification of parties and votes by "Left" and "Right" is a fundamentally perverse approach," insisted Harald Stefan, chairman of the Freedom Party in the Viennese district of Simmering, in an interview with VICE News. Last year, in local elections, the Freedom Party seized control of working class Simmering — which has long been bastion of the Left, known as Red Vienna.

Perhaps more than anything, the Freedom Party has been boosted by Vienna's wildly inconsistent policies on migration. The Austrian government originally supported German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her proposal to open Europe's borders. But then, Vienna changed course, closing its borders and campaigning for Balkan nations to follow suit — in what many believe was a delayed effort to win back Freedom Party supporters. The government came across as politically capricious and unsure of itself.

Hofer, the presidential hopeful, is the most modern, elegant iteration of the Freedom Party to date. A well-heeled trained engineer, 45-year-old Hofer is often soft spoken and largely avoids overly racist statements. But he retains the Freedom Party edge. Recently, Hofer remarked that, as a result of these "uncertain times" in Europe, he is forced to carry a Glock gun to protect himself.

Related: Thousands Of Refugees Celebrate Reaching Austria But Doubts Remain

Beyond the Freedom Party, a number of far right street movements are gaining visibility. The most conspicuous of these is the Identitarians, whose members are mostly young, educated, and steeped in a common ideological canon. They are sometimes dismissed as "far right hipsters."

Group spokesperson AlexanderMarkovics told VICE News that his group had a 1,000 core members and over 20,000 supporters, but Austrian press estimate that number as much smaller.

In the last year, the collective has grown bullish: physically blocking the Nickelsdorf border crossing in September, and violently interrupting a play starring asylum seekers at the University of Vienna, by rushing the stage and throwing fake blood at the audience.

Markovics is a student of German history and like others in his movement, he is earnestly inspired by the thinkers of the New Right, which took root in France in 1970s and 1980s — and which keeps the core social values of the far right, while adding a sprinkling of traditionally leftist platforms, like market skepticism, and a language inspired by conservative German philosophers of the World War I-era. Markovics reads Otto Strausser, the former Nazi politician — and Alain de Benoist, a French writer who argued against the geographic mixing of ethnic groups.

As with earlier iterations of the Freedom Party, Austrian history weighs heavily on the Identitarians. "Austrian history does not consist only of the 20th century.... We have dark periods in our history, for instance the crimes committed under fascism. And we condemn fascism as such," Markovics said. "But we don't feel guilty for crimes committed in that period because there is no such thing as collective guilt."

Markovics reads a lot, and he functions as a kind of group ideologue: recommending books and articles to fellow Identitarians. "It is important not just to be a patriot, but to be an educated patriot... It's important that you have an ideology."

Political forecasters in Brussels are pre-emptively dispirited. Many predict that Austria will be the first of still-more European states to fall to democratic illiberalism — in much the same way as Hungary and Poland, whose governments are both stacked with politicians of the far right.

The European Union (EU), in turn, looks ill-prepared to stem the tide. Back in 2000, when the Freedom Party entered Austria's federal government, the EU imposed temporary sanctions and threatened to diplomatically boycott Austria. But the sanctions accomplished little — and the EU has never repeated the experiment. More recently, the European Commission launched an inquiry into the rule of law in increasingly undemocratic Poland. But it seems unlikely that sanctions would be imposed on Warsaw — if only because Hungary would not agree to it, and the imposition of sanctions requires unanimous EU support.

With the Freedom Party leading the polls, Hofer seems primed to win the presidency on Sunday — unless the centrist parties rally behind the Green candidate. Such a strategy was used in France, back in 2002, to help then-presidential candidate Jacques Chirac beat the far right firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far right Front National party.

Incidentally, Le Pen's daughter Marine Le Pen, who now runs the Front National — and who has offered public support for Hofer in Austria — is expected to give the socialist incumbent president Francois Hollande in France's a tough run in presidential elections next year.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart

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