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ANALYSIS Austrian far right seeks clean, moderate image in government bid By Albert Otti, dpa

By our dpa-correspondent and Europe Online    auf Facebook posten  Auf Twitter posten  
The Freedom Party has been preparing to take on a leading role in Austria. Exactly how right is this rightist party?

Vienna (dpa) - Austria‘s Freedom Party (FPOe) chief Heinz-Christian Strache made a declaration in December that was full of defiance and optimism.

"2017 will be the year of the Freedom Party! Our day will come!," the far-right opposition leader said after Austrian voters opted against FPOe candidate Norbert Hofer in the presidential election, and made Green rival Alexander Van der Bellen head of state.

Ten months later, the FPOe is poised to become part of the next government, as a deep rift between the Social Democrats (SPOe) and the conservative People‘s Party (OeVP) makes it unlikely that these centrist parties will continue their coalition after Sunday‘s parliamentary election.

How did a movement that started as a party of former National Socialists after World War II turn into a serious political contender?

Despite these origins, the Freedom Party was a liberal economic movement for many decades until the mid 1980s, when young firebrand Joerg Haider took the helm of the FPOe, infusing it with his brand of populism and xenophobia.

The FPOe was not the only party with tainted members, by the way: former Nazis also joined the OeVP and the SPOe after the war. In 1970, chancellor Bruno Kreisky formed a social democratic cabinet that contained no fewer than six ministers who had belonged to Nazi organizations, including the SS.

Unlike other populist or far-right parties in Europe, the FPOe was no outsider, but a part of Austria‘s political system, having had seats in parliament since 1956.

It was part of coalition cabinets from 1983 to 1987, and from 2000 to 2005.

The FPOe currently appears more stable and moderate than other European parties, such as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the National Front in France, which have been dogged by internal disputes.

"The Alternative for Germany is still suffering from birth pangs," 48-year-old Strache has quipped.

Strache originally started out as a far-right hardliner when he became FPOe leader in 2005.

"However, from 2010 onward, the FPOe began showing signs of a selective re-engagement with the mainstream by moderating its discourse and distancing itself from extreme positions," Salzburg University scholars Reinhard Heinisch and Kristina Hauser wrote in a recent study.

Under Strache‘s leadership, the party is cracking down on members who tarnish its image.

In July, an FPOe candidate was forced to drop out of the parliamentary election race after he had made a veiled anti-Semitic comment.

This week, an FPOe town councilman in Styria province was suspended by his party after media reported that he had raised his arm in a Hitler salute. "We take these charges very seriously," the party said in a statement.

Strache himself has a spotty past. As a young man, he was in contact with an extreme-right group called the Viking Youth, and there are photos that show young Strache wearing camouflage at a mock combat training camp organized by another group.

"I was never a neo-Nazi, and I am not a neo-Nazi," Strache has said.

He has explained that he saw the Viking Youth event as an anti-Communist protest rather than a far-right gathering, and that he had left the paramilitary camp early because he was "horrified" about what went on there.

"I was still trying to find my way," he said about his youth in a recent interview with the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

"Effectively, he has admitted that he moved in these circles in his youth, and he says that he distanced himself from them as he got wiser," Andreas Peham, a Vienna expert who monitors the far-right scene, told dpa.

In terms of policy, the FPOe also has moved to the centre.

Unlike France‘s National Front, Strache‘s party does not want Austria to leave the European Union, but wants to reform the bloc into a less centralized structure.

The FPOe still takes a hard line on migration, calling for tighter border protection, expulsion of criminal immigrants, and welfare cuts for asylum seekers.

However, the Freedom Party has become mainstream on this issue - not because it moved to the centre, but because other parties moved to the right, following the refugee crisis that brought 90,000 asylum seekers to Austria in 2015.

Election frontrunner Sebastian Kurz of the centre-right OeVP has since adopted restrictive migration policies. Chancellor Christian Kern‘s Social Democrats have also toughened up, even if they claim that their policies are more humane.

In a TV debate in late September, Strache, Kurz and Kern were asked to say whether refugees should enjoy the same welfare benefits as Austrians, by raising a "Yes" or a "No" card.

All three signalled "No."


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