Why you should care
Because we’re talking about pan-German nationalism.
Previously, on Political Populist Sagas of Europe… Several months ago, Freedom Party of Austria’s Norbert Hofer lost his bid for the presidency to independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Or so we thought. A challenge by Hofer’s party, the FPÖ, over alleged irregularities in counting led to another election, scheduled for December. As populist fervor mounts across Europe, Hofer and Van der Bellen stand neck and neck in the polls. If Hofer wins, he may be the first in a one-two nationalist punch that sees the leader of his party, Heinz-Christian Strache, take over as chancellor … Austria’s true head of state.
Meet that man.
Running up a flight of stairs, Rocky-style, in a hoodie and ripped jeans, the not-so-young crooner hits the mic, filling the airwaves with nationalist pride. Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party of Austria, or FPÖ, has little shame when it comes to wooing his fellow Austrians, especially the under-30s. The man fronting the party once led by the late, colorful and pro-Nazi Jörg Haider portrays himself as the hip-yet-approachable guy next door.
He was always seen as less intelligent, less flamboyant and more simplistic.
His FPÖ is one of a handful of far-right European parties riding the fears of European refugees and debt crises. Strache is a divisive figure, tainted with hints of neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia. He admits links to right-wing Germanic fraternities known as Burschenschaften, whose origins recall pan-German unity and nationalistic fervor. You’ve heard the names of his ideological compatriots before: Marine Le Pen (France), Geert Wilders (Netherlands), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) or Donald Trump. Like them, the Vienna native, who prefers to go by “HC,” positions himself as the outsiders’ man, here to put “Austria First.”
Not everyone assumes Strache will land in charge if Hofer wins — he could opt for balance, choosing a nonparty chancellor — but that’s the opinion of Heinz Gärtner, academic director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs. He figures Austrians who elect an FPÖ president will say “Why not?” to an FPÖ chancellor. Either way, Strache will keep his job as FPÖ’s chief, standing center stage in national politics for the foreseeable future. If dubbed leader, where would he steer this nation of 8.5 million? Likely in dramatic directions: Strache, who did not respond to OZY’s request for comments, has said that the EU must reform or he’ll consider a Brexit-style referendum.
Strache, who first trained to become a technical dentist, is far from your average Oxford-educated European statesman. He has no degree from a higher educational institution, a point that plays well among blue-collar Austrians. Fit and trim, equally at ease in dark suits or jeans, the blue-eyed, brown-haired politician is an impassioned orator. “He speaks to the heart of many Austrians,” says Gärtner. Anton Pelinka, a politics professor at Central European University in Budapest, says Strache’s low-key demeanor has caused others to underestimate him. “He was always seen as less intelligent, less flamboyant and more simplistic” than Haider, he says. Undeservedly so.
Lothar Höbelt, professor of modern history at the University of Vienna, says that as a conservative, he supports the FPÖ. “There’s no choice but that,” he says. Having met Strache several times, Höbelt describes him as “the average Austrian: Middle age. Middle income. Middle education.” And while the historian wouldn’t characterize Strache as charismatic, he says the FPÖ leader is “authentic in that he represents a sort of Austria that doesn’t want to be swamped by outsiders.”
The FPÖ’s support hovers just above 30 percent in opinion and newspaper polls, outpacing traditional centrist parties like the Social Democrats and People’s Party. Gärtner says the party can thank ideology for that. The other mainstream parties don’t have a real ideology, he says, noting that “they’re too pragmatic.” So by sticking on message — national interests trump the EU, borders matter, Austrians need jobs — Strache offers a “nationalistic ideology that resonates with the electorate.”
But he’s not without contradiction, Pelinka points out. Strache was for a long time opposed to Austrian neutrality, which he now defends. In a bid to distance himself from Nazi leanings, he’s developed a pro-Israel attitude and ruffled more than a few liberal feathers by visiting the Jewish state earlier this year. “I would say he’s neither a real friend of Israel, nor is he a real Nazi. He’s just Strache,” Pelinka says. He also points out that Strache became a confirmed Catholic in his 40s. “He’s Catholic because he thinks it’s useful … a friend of Israel so as not to be seen as a Nazi,” he explains.
The FPÖ has ruled Austria in coalition before — in the 1980s with the socialists and in the 2000s with the conservatives — but even as the bigger partner the last time around, its party leader never became chancellor. Pelinka says Strache’s party probably won’t win the majority on their own, but that he might take the helm if either conservatives or social democrats accept him as chancellor. The next legislative election in Austria is due by 2018 — parliamentary seats determine the chancellorship, as opposed to December’s vote for the more symbolic role of president — but with the FPÖ rising in the polls, it may push for an earlier vote to monopolize its momentum. Gärtner predicts some ideological polarization for a likely coalition between the FPÖ and the People’s Party, quite possibly with Strache taking the helm.
So where would an FPÖ chancellor lead? Höbelt says Strache, if in charge, would act on a slew of promises to clamp down on immigration and secure Europe against the Arab world. But to an Austro exit, Höbelt says no. “We’re a small country in the middle of Europe. We simply can’t leave the European Union. That’s quite clear to everybody.”