This Glock-Wielding Populist Now Leads Austria’s Right-Wing Populists
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s helping pull Europe to extremes.
On May 18, 2019, Freedom Party (FPÖ) chair and Austria’s Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned amid a corruption scandal after being caught on videotape apparently promising government contracts to a wealthy Russian. Norbert Hofer, profiled by OZY in 2016, has, in turn, become the designated leader of the far-right FPÖ, but it’s unclear whether Hofer will become vice chancellor. The FPÖ has been ruling in coalition with the Austrian People’s Party Chair, helmed by the young Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who will likely call for snap elections rather than continue to rule in coalition with the FPÖ.
Norbert Hofer is soft-spoken and leans on a cane — the remnant of a paragliding mishap that nearly paralyzed him. At 48 and prematurely gray, he has a reassuring smile and a kind of youthful zeal when he speaks. Here is a man who understands why Austrians are scared about the future, their jobs and their safety, and he is promising to put Österreich zuerst — Austria first.
Or so it seems to many. The presidential Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) candidate defied polls in 2016, dismissing traditional party politicians in the first round of voting, netting 36 percent of the ballots. The far-right presidential wannabe, in fact, came very close to taking the helm of this landlocked, schnitzel-loving nation. He heard his countrymen’s grievances, diagnosed the problems — Islam, refugees, the EU and globalization — and offered to help. Such simple messages of scapegoats and solutions are being heard the world over; this Glock-wielding populist with a fondness for shooting and Margaret Thatcher is indeed sharing a now-familiar playbook with America’s Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen.
“Islam has no place in Austria,” Hofer’s told voters.
Until now, the married father of four, whose campaign didn’t reply to OZY’s request for comment, has managed to keep a low profile outside party circles — so much so that political analysts are hard-pressed to pinpoint the defining moments that fueled his rise. “He was never in the front row of the [FPÖ],” says Anton Pelinka, a politics professor at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Hailing from eastern Burgenland, where he joined the party’s branch after studying aeronautical engineering, Hofer became party secretary in 1996 and has long been an FPÖ strategist and adviser to the far more aggressive and divisive party chair, Heinz-Christian Strache (now resigned). Hofer didn’t hit anyone’s radar, really, until 2013, when he was named third president of Austria’s National Council after the FPÖ became the third-biggest party in Parliament in the last national election. Now he’s the designated leader of his party and could become vice chancellor.
Hofer is a “friendly face,” says Pelinka — at least compared to Strache — and one “the party is using to gain acceptance.” The FPÖ has polled at over 30 percent nationwide, reflecting growing anti-Muslim sentiment and concern over immigration. Austria, in recent years, has limited the number of asylum claims, tightened its borders and even showed a soft spot for Russia, despite Putin’s antics in Crimea and Ukraine.
But, “if you look carefully, he’s not soft,” warns professor Ruth Wodak, a linguistics and politics expert at England’s Lancaster University. She calls him “one of the ideologues,” and “the one who wrote the party program for the FPÖ.” If he’s unhappy with the government? When talk of him becoming president arose in 2016, Norbert said he’d dissolve Parliament and call new elections — a presidential perk that’s never before been exercised. “Islam has no place in Austria,” Hofer’s told voters, latching onto the refugee crisis in a bid to win.
But he’s also flexible. In Parliament, Hofer’s been far more right-wing than on the campaign trail. Heinz Gärtner, academic director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, calls Hofer’s ability to sound moderate without abandoning far-right ideals his greatest strength.
FPÖ is among the country’s most popular parties today, drawing support largely from those who Pelinka calls “modernization losers” — people afraid of globalization, mass migration and changes they fear could undermine their future. Hofer’s far from a unanimously loved figure though — traditional conservative politicos from the People’s Party encouraged voters in 2016 to instead back independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party candidate (a bit like Ted Cruz lobbying his base to vote for Bernie over Trump). Hofer beat Van der Bellen in the first round of voting, leading to a runoff that narrowly saw Van der Bellen win the presidency.
What does Hofer support? Stronger government, greater isolationism, efforts to reform the EU, more alliances with European partners who put state interests over the bloc’s. The party doesn’t bad-mouth all foreign groups, mind you — the FPÖ cooperates with Serbs in Austria to ally against the Turks, says Gärtner, playing migrant groups against each other, which could ironically lead to some “foreign” votes for FPÖ.
Following Strache’s resignation today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German politicians encouraged European governments to stop working in coalition with right-wing populists. The populists, they say, may not hold the country’s best interests at heart. “We are confronted with currents … that want to destroy the Europe of our values,” Merkel said, ”and we must stand up to that decisively.”
Whether Hofer rises to the top of the Austrian political ladder depends upon whether Kurz agrees with Merkel and calls snap elections in a bid to quickly reconfigure his country’s leadership.