The Freedom Party of Austria (German: Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) is a right-wing political party in Austria. Ideologically the party is a direct descendant of the German national liberal camp, which dates back to the 1848 revolutions. The FPÖ itself was founded in 1956 as the successor to the short-lived Federation of Independents (VdU), which had been founded seven years earlier. In the Austrian political landscape, the FPÖ was from its foundation a third party with only modest support until it entered into government together with the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) in the mid-1980s.
When Jörg Haider was chosen as new FPÖ party leader in 1986, the party started a political and ideological journey which was described by observers as representing a turn towards right-wing populism. This new political course soon resulted in a strong surge in electoral support for the party, although it also led the SPÖ to break its ties. In 1993, after a controversial proposal on immigration issues, the adherents of a position closer to classical liberalism in the FPÖ broke away and formed the (now-marginalized) Liberal Forum (LiF). This new party took over the FPÖ's membership in the Liberal International, since the FPÖ considered itself forced to leave.
In the 1999 legislative election, the FPÖ won its best-ever result in a national election with 26.9% of the vote and defeated the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) by a small margin. This led the ÖVP to agree to form a coalition government with the FPÖ. The coalition was initially subject to sanctions from the European Union, which claimed that the coalition was "legitimis[ing] the extreme right in Europe." The FPÖ soon became uncomfortable with its new government position and fell sharply in support in the 2002 election, where it gained only 10% of the vote. The two parties agreed to continue their coalition following the election; however, increasing internal disagreements in the FPÖ led Haider and many leading party members (including the FPÖ part of the government) to defect from the party in 2005. They formed a new party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), which replaced the FPÖ as government partner with the ÖVP. Since then, the chairman of the FPÖ has been Heinz-Christian Strache and the party has again attracted an increase in its popular support.
The FPÖ is a direct descendant of the German national liberal camp (Lager) dating back to the Revolutions of 1848 in the Habsburg areas. During the interwar era, the national liberal camp fought against the mutually-hostile Christian Social and Marxist camps in their struggles to structure the new republic according to their respective ideologies. After a civil war the Federal State of Austria, an authoritarian Christian Social dictatorship, was established in 1934. By 1938, with the Anschluss of Austria into Nazi Germany, the national liberal camp (which had always striven for an inclusion of Austria into a Greater Germany) had been swallowed whole by National Socialism and all other parties were eventually absorbed into Nazi totalitarianism.
In 1949, the Federation of Independents (VdU) was founded as a national liberal alternative to the main Austrian parties—the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP). (The latter were successors to the interwar era Marxist and Christian Social parties.) The VdU was founded by two liberal Salzburg journalists—former Nazi Germany prisoners—who wanted to stay clear of the mainstream socialist and Catholic camps and feared that hostility following the hastily devised postwar denazification policy (which did not distinguish between party members and actual war criminals) might stimulate a revival of Nazism. Functioning as a political home to everyone not a member of the two main parties, the VdU incorporated an array of political movements—including free-market liberals, populists, former Nazis and German nationalists, all of whom had been unable to join either of the two main parties. The VdU won 12% of the vote in the 1949 general election, but saw its support beginning to decline soon afterward. It evolved into the FPÖ by 1955/56 after merging with the minor Freedom Party in 1955; a new party was formed on 17 October 1955, and its founding congress was held on 7 April 1956.
Early years (1956–1980)
The first FPÖ party leader was Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi Minister of Agriculture and SS officer. He had been asked by ÖVP Chancellor Julius Raab to take over the movement rather than let it be led by a more socialist-leaning group. Whilst the majority of former Nazis had probably joined the two main parties in absolute numbers, they formed a greater percentage of FPÖ members due to the party's small size. Nevertheless, none of them were real revolutionaries and they pursued pragmatic, non-ideological policies. The FPÖ served as a vehicle for them to integrate in the Second Republic; the party was a welcome partner with both the SPÖ and ÖVP in regional and local politics, although it was excluded at the national level. The ÖVP and the FPÖ ran a joint candidate for the 1957 presidential election, who lost.
Reinthaller was replaced as leader in 1958 by Friedrich Peter (also a former SS officer), who led the party through the 1960s and 1970s and moved it towards the political centre. In 1966 the ÖVP-SPÖ Grand Coalition which had governed Austria since the war was broken, when the ÖVP gained enough votes to govern alone. SPÖ leader Bruno Kreisky (himself a Jew) defended Peter's past and initiated a political relationship—and a personal friendship—with Peter; in 1970 the FPÖ was, for the first time, able to tolerate an SPÖ minority government. In 1967 the more extreme faction in the FPÖ broke away and established the National Democratic Party, seen by some observers as a final shedding of the party's Nazi legacy. Under the influence of Kreisky, a new generation of liberals brought the FPÖ into the Liberal International in 1978.
Steger leadership (1980–1986)
Liberal Norbert Steger was chosen as new FPÖ party leader in 1980; in an effort to gain popularity, he helped the FPÖ become established as a moderate centrist liberal party. His vision was to transform the FPÖ into an Austrian version of the German Free Democratic Party, focusing on free-market and anti-statist policies. In the 1980s, the Austrian political system began to change; the dominance of the SPÖ and ÖVP started to erode, and the Austrian electorate began to swing to the right. SPÖ leader Bruno Kreisky had encouraged the FPÖ's move to the centre, in order to establish an SPÖ-FPÖ alliance against the ÖVP. The 1983 general election was a watershed; the SPÖ lost its absolute majority in Parliament, which resulted in the formation of an SPÖ-FPÖ "Small Coalition". Ironically, the 1983 election result was the worst for the FPÖ in its history (it received slightly less than 5% of the vote), and during the next few years the party saw 2-3% support—or even less—in opinion polls. As a consequence, the party was soon torn by internal strife.
In 1983, the right-wing Jörg Haider took over the leadership of the FPÖ's significant Carinthia branch. Its importance dated to the Kärntner Abwehrkampf (Carinthian defensive struggle) following World War I, and subsequent anti-Slavic sentiment arising from a fear of being taken over by Yugoslavia. Encouraged by the mass media, a struggle soon developed between Steger and Haider over the future of the party. In the 1985 Reder case, for instance, Haider staunchly supported FPÖ Minister of Defence Friedhelm Frischenschlager when the latter welcomed convicted Waffen-SS war criminal Walter Reder in person when Reder arrived at Graz Airport after his release from Italy. While the FPÖ struggled with its low support at the national level in the mid-1980s, this was in sharp contrast to the party's position in Haider's Carinthia (where the party had increased its support from 11.7% in the 1979 provincial election to 16% in 1984).
During the 1986 National Convention in Innsbruck, the internal struggle developed into an open conflict; this led Haider to victory as new FPÖ party leader with 58% of the vote, supported by conservative and pan-German factions. However, incoming SPÖ Chancellor Franz Vranitzky—who also entered office in 1986—had strong negative feelings towards Haider, whom he felt was too far-right. Vranitzky subsequently announced an election in 1986, in the process disbanding the SPÖ-FPÖ "Small Coalition" and, after the election, entered into a coalition with the ÖVP. Under Haider's leadership, the FPÖ increased its vote to 9.7%, while the party gradually became more right-wing and its former liberal influence waned. As the FPÖ increased its electoral support with Haider's radical-populist rhetoric, the party reduced its chances of forming coalitions with other parties.
Haider leadership (1986–2000)
With Jörg Haider as the new party leader, the 1989 Carinthia provincial election caused a sensation; the SPÖ lost its majority and the ÖVP was relegated to third-party status, as the FPÖ finished second with 29% of the vote. The FPÖ formed a coalition with the ÖVP, with Haider as Governor of Carinthia (at this point his greatest political triumph). By the 1990 general election the party had moved away from the liberal mainstream course, instead focusing on immigration and becoming increasingly critical of the political establishment and the EU. Following a remark made by Haider in 1991 about the "decent employment policy" of Nazi Germany (in contrast to that of the current Austrian government), he was removed as governor by a joint SPÖ-ÖVP initiative and replaced by the ÖVP's Christof Zernatto. Later that year, however, the FPÖ saw gains made in three provincial elections (most notably in Vienna).
While Haider often employed controversial rhetoric, his expressed political goals included small government with more direct democracy rather than centralized totalitarianism. Following the increasing importance of immigration as a political issue, in 1993 the party decided to launch the "Austria First!" initiative (calling for a referendum on immigration issues). The initiative was controversial and five FPÖ MPs, including Heide Schmidt, left the party and founded the Liberal Forum (LiF). The FPÖ's relations with the Liberal International also became increasingly strained, and later that year the FPÖ left the LI (which was preparing to expel it). In turn, the LiF soon joined the Liberal International instead. In 1999, Haider was again elected Governor of Carinthia.
Coalition government (2000–2005)
In the 1999 general election the FPÖ won 27% of the votes, more than in any previous election—beating the ÖVP for the first time by a small margin. In February 2000, the ÖVP agreed to form a coalition government with the FPÖ. Despite domestic and international criticism of the FPÖ's participation in the government, Wolfgang Schüssel of the ÖVP became federal chancellor. Although Haider declined any position in the government, the FPÖ was given power to appoint the Ministers of Finance and Social Affairs.Later that month Haider stepped down as party chairman, replaced by Susanne Riess-Passer.
There was a great degree of outrage both within the country and internationally, even though the FPÖ's entrance into the government was a result of democratic elections. Having threatened a diplomatic boycott of Austria, the other 14 European Union (EU) countries introduced sanctions after the government had been formed; other than formal EU meetings, contacts with Austria were reduced. The measures were justified by the EU, which stated that "the admission of the FPÖ into a coalition government legitimises the extreme right in Europe." Although the FPÖ's profile had changed over time (and it had been in government with the SPÖ during the mid-1980s), the party had been denigrated following its ideological shift under Haider. Along with the party's origins and its focus on issues such as immigration and questions of identity and belonging, the party had (until recently) been subjected to a strategy of cordon sanitaire by the SPÖ and ÖVP. The EU sanctions were lifted in September, after a report had found that the measures were effective only in the short term; in the long run, they might give rise to an anti-EU backlash.
The FPÖ struggled with its shift from an anti-establishment party to being part of the government, which led to decreasing internal stability and electoral support. Its blue collar voters became unhappy with the party's need to support some neo-liberal ÖVP economic reforms; the government's peak in unpopularity occurred when tax reform was postponed at the same time that the government was planning to purchase new interceptor jets. Internecine strife erupted in the party over strategy between party members in government and Haider, who allied himself with the party's grass roots. Several prominent FPÖ government ministers resigned in the 2002 "Knittelfeld Putsch" after strong attacks by Haider, which led to new elections being called.
In the subsequent election campaign, the party was deeply divided and unable to organise an effective political strategy. It changed leaders five times in less than two months, and in the 2002 general election decreased its share of the vote to 10.2%, almost two-thirds less than its previous share. Most of its voters sided with the ÖVP, which became the largest party in Austria with 43% of the vote. Nevertheless, the coalition government of the ÖVP and FPÖ was revived after the election; however, there was increasing criticism within the FPÖ against the party's mission of winning elections at any cost.
Haider's departure for BZÖ
After an internal row had threatened to tear the FPÖ apart, former chairman Jörg Haider—followed by then-current chairman (and Haider's sister) Ursula Haubner, vice chancellor Hubert Gorbach and the entire FPÖ contingent of the government—left the party and on 4 April 2005 founded a new political party called the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). Austria's chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel followed, changing his coalition with the FPÖ into cooperation with the BZÖ. In Haider's stronghold of Carinthia, the local FPÖ branch became the Carinthia branch of the BZÖ.
Strache leadership (2005–present)
The FPÖ fared much better than the BZÖ in polls following the 2005 split, with the first tests in regional elections in Styria and Burgenland. On 23 April 2005 Heinz-Christian Strache was elected as new chairman of the FPÖ, taking over from interim leader Hilmar Kabas. As most of the party's office-seeking elite had gone over to the BZÖ, the FPÖ was again free from responsibility. Under Strache the party's ideology grew more radical, and it returned to its primary goal of vote-maximising. The FPÖ did reasonably well in October's Vienna election, in which Strache was the leading candidate and ran a campaign directed strongly against immigration. It took a 14.9% share, while the BZÖ won just 1.2%.
By the 2006 general election, the FPÖ returned to promoting anti-immigration, anti-Islam and Eurosceptic issues. It won 11% of the vote and 21 seats in parliament, while the BZÖ only barely passed the 4% threshold needed to enter Parliament. The subsequent coalition between the SPÖ and the ÖVP left both parties in opposition. In the 2008 general election both the FPÖ and the BZÖ rose significantly at the expense of the SPÖ and the ÖVP. Both parties increased their percentage of the vote by about 6.5%, with the FPÖ at 17.4% and the BZÖ at 10.7%—together gaining 28.2%, and thus both breaking the record vote for the FPÖ in the 1999 election. Shortly after the election, BZÖ leader and former FPÖ leader Jörg Haider died in a car accident. In the 2009 European Parliament election the FPÖ doubled its 2004 results, winning 12.8% of the vote and 2 seats.
In December 2009 the local Carinthia branch of the BZÖ, its stronghold, broke away and founded the Freedom Party in Carinthia (FPK); it cooperated with the FPÖ at the federal level, modeling itself on the German CDU/CSU relationship. The leader of the branch, Uwe Scheuch, had fallen out with BZÖ leader Josef Bucher after the latter had introduced a "moderate, right-wing liberal" and more economically oriented ideology. In the 2010 Vienna elections, the FPÖ increased its vote to 25.8% (slightly less than the record result of 1996); this was seen as a victory for Strache, due to his popularity among young people. This was only the second time in the postwar era that the SPÖ lost its absolute majority in the city.
After its convention in early 2011 mid-way between general elections, the FPÖ had a support in opinion polls of around 24-29%—at par with the SPÖ and ÖVP, and above the BZÖ. Among people under 30 years of age, the FPÖ had the support of 42%.
Under the leadership of Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ has focused on describing itself as a Heimat and social party. This means that the party promotes its role as a guarantor of Austrian identity and social welfare. Economically, it supports regulated liberalism with privatisation and low taxes, combined with support for the welfare state; however, it maintains that it will be impossible to uphold the welfare state if current immigration policies are continued.
The principle of individual freedom in society was already one of the central points in the FPÖ (and VdU's) program during the 1950s. The party did not regard its liberalism and its pan-German, nationalist positions as contradictory. From the late 1980s through the 1990s, the party developed economically, supporting tax reduction, less state intervention and more privatisation. In the late 2000s, the party combined this position with support for the welfare state. It criticised unemployment and alleged welfare-state abuse by immigrants which, it said, threatened the welfare state and pensioners' benefits.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Austrian voters became increasingly disaffected with the rule by the two major parties (SPÖ and ÖVP). This coincided with the leadership of Haider, who presented the FPÖ as the only party which could seriously challenge the two parties' dominance. The party strongly criticised the power concentrated in the hands of the elite, until the FPÖ joined the government in 2000. In the 1990s the party advocated replacing the present Second Austrian Republic with a Third Republic, since it sought a radical transformation from "a party state to a citizens' democracy." The party wanted to provide more referendums, directly elect the federal president, significantly reduce the number of ministries, and devolve power to the federal states and local councils. Surveys have shown that anti-establishment positions were one of the top reasons for voters to vote for the FPÖ. Its anti-establishment position proved incompatible with being in government during the first half of the 2000s, but was renewed after most of the parliamentary group left to join the BZÖ in 2005.
Immigration was not a hot-button issue in Austria until the 1980s. Under Haider's leadership, on the list of most important issues for voters immigration went from being practically non-existent before 1989, to the 10th-most-important in 1990, and the second-most-important in 1992. In 1993, the controversial "Austria First!" initiative aimed to collect signatures for a referendum on immigration restrictions and asserted that "Austria is not a country of immigration." The party also maintained that "the protection of cultural identity and social peace in Austria requires a stop to immigration," maintaining that its concern was not against foreigners, but to safeguard the interests and cultural identity of native Austrians. Although during the late 1990s the party warned against the growing influence of radical Islam, this was later expanded to include concerns about Islamisation and the increasing number of Muslims in general.
During the period of ÖVP-FPÖ government, many amendments were introduced to tighten the country's immigration policies. The number of new asylum applications, for example, was reduced from 32,000 in 2003 to 13,300 in 2006.
From the mid 1980s, the concept of Heimat (a word meaning both "the homeland" and a more general notion of cultural identity) has been central to the ideology of the FPÖ, although its application has slightly changed with time. Initially, Heimat indicated the feeling of national belonging influenced by a pan-Germanic vision; the party assured voters in 1985 that "the overwhelming majority of Austrians belong to the German ethnic and cultural community." Although it was noted then that Austria was the mother country which held the national traditions, this would later be favoured more explicitly over the pan-German concept. In 1995 Haider declared an end to pan-Germanism in the party, and in the 1997 party manifesto the former community of "German people" was replaced with the "Austrian people". Under the leadership of Strache, the concept of Heimat has been promoted and developed more deeply than it had been previously.
The FPÖ's position on the European Union changed (between 1989 and 1990) from pro- to anti-EU, which was reflected by its change from pan-Germanism to Austrian patriotism. Since the 1990s, the party has taken an increasingly Eurosceptic position. The FPÖ opposed Austria's joining the EU in 1994, and promoted a popular initiative against the replacement of the Austrian schilling with the Euro in 1998; both issues were defeated. Due to perceived differences between Turkish and European culture, the party opposes the accession of Turkey to the EU; it has declared that should this happen, Austria must immediately leave the EU.
The party's positions towards the United States and the Middle East have evolved over time. While some right-wing forums had held anti-American positions during the 1970s and 1980s (largely due to concerns over US cultural expansion and its hegemonic role in world politics at the expense of Europe), the FPÖ initially developed a more positive relationship towards the United States under Haider in the late 1980s and 1990s. However, this changed in 2003 when Haider visited Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq War; he subsequently condemned US foreign policy and George W. Bush for not being very different from Hussein. This move was strongly criticised by the FPÖ, which was part of the then-current government. Nevertheless, in the mid- to late 2000s the FPÖ to criticised US foreign policy as promoted by Bush, which it saw as leading to increased levels of violence in the Middle East. The party also became more critical of Israel's part in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
By 2010, under Heinz-Christian Strache's leadership, the party became more friendly towards Israel. In December 2010 the FPÖ (along with the representatives of like-minded rightist parties) visited Israel, where they issued the "Jerusalem Declaration"; this affirmed Israel's right to exist and defend itself, particularly against Islamic terror. At the FPÖ's invitation, Israeli Deputy Minister Ayoob Kara of the Likud party subsequently visited Vienna. Strache, at about the same time, said he wanted to meet with leaders of the American Tea Party movement (which he described as "highly interesting"). He has also declared himself "a friend of the Serbs" (who constitute the largest immigrant group in Austria). The FPÖ rejects the establishment of Kosovo, and states that it is on the side of Serbia.
While the FPÖ is not a member of any European or international organisations, the party has links with various European parties and political groupings. Under the leadership of Strache, the party has cooperated mainly with the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, and the citizens' movement Pro Köln in Germany. The FPÖ also has contacts with the Swiss People's Party, the Italian Lega Nord, the Danish People's Party, the Slovak National Party, the Sweden Democrats and the German The Freedom. In 2007, the party's then-only MEP was a member of the short-lived Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty grouping in the European Parliament, which included the French National Front. Outside the EU, it also has contacts with Tomislav Nikolić of the Serbian Progressive Party (formerly of the Serbian Radical Party) and the United Russia party.