Brought down by scandal, Austria’s People Party is willing to resolve tensions with conservatives to re-enter government.
In May, the coalition between the right-wing Austria People’s Party (OVP) and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) collapsed after the latter found itself entangled in a scandal.
Known as ‘Ibiza-gate’, the scandal stemmed from former FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache being caught on video offering public contracts to an individual posing as a Russian backer in exchange for assistance in electoral campaigns.
Strache also suggested he would seek to crack down on press freedoms in a manner reminiscent of far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
In the week of the footage’s release, the OVP-FPO coalition crumbled, and Chancellor Sebastien Kurz and his governing coalition were out following a vote of no confidence.
The FPO, which had been a junior coalition partner until the May collapse, is still hoping for a comeback in the upcoming legislative elections, slated to take place on September 29.
The far-right party has again offered to band together with the right-wing OVP.
“We extend a sincere hand to the conservatives to continue the work begun together to reform Austria,” Norbert Hofer, former presidential candidate for the FPO, recently told reporters.
Former chancellor Kurz, though, has stipulated that in order for the OVP to again partner with FPO, former interior minister Herbert Kickl could not return to government.
Kickl is a controversial figure who has called for refugees and migrants to be “concentrated” in a single place, a proposal many critics said alluded to Nazi concentration camps.
He subsequently insisted he did not intend to “provoke” anyone, but the FPO remains a hardline party strongly opposed to migration.
Some experts have cast doubt on whether the FPO could successfully recover in the wake of the Ibiza scandal.
Citing “several challenges”, Austrian expert Patrick Moreau of the French National Centre for Scientific Research told the AFP news agency: “A comeback will be difficult.”
But Farid Hafez, a political scientist and senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, sees the coalition as more or less inevitable.
“In electoral terms, the most probable coalition will be OVP-FPO, because only in this case there is a majority for a right-wing coalition,” he told TRT World, explaining that a partnership between the OVP and the Social Democrats would be difficult due to “fundamental differences”.
“Both parties [OVP and FPO] still declare their commonalities and argue that the last coalition was a good one going in the right direction,” he said.
“According to their narrative, only the Ibiza gate stopped their road of reforms for Austria. Hence, all the scandals are no hindrance for them.”
The Ibiza affair was only one of several scandals the FPO weathered during its time in the government.
Founded by former Nazi officers in 1956, the FPO claims to have shed its ideological roots. But the party has continued to push anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies, Eurosceptic positions and has often resorted to anti-Muslim bigotry.
The FPO first joined a governing coalition in 2000, after winning around 27 percent of the vote during elections the previous year.
Although the FPO failed to reenter the parliament for 12 years after 2005, the party clenched around 26 percent support during the 2017 legislative elections.
It subsequently became the junior coalition partner to Kurz’s conservative government.
Throughout 2018, however, the FPO landed in hot water several times.
In March 2018, Austria’s foreign ministry recalled an attaché in Israel, who was a member of the FPO, after he was photographed wearing a pro-Nazi T-shirt.
That same month, two councillors in Suben were arrested for intercepted WhatsApp messages in which they glorified Nazi Germany.
Two months before those incidents, another FPO candidate was forced to quit over his prior leadership of a student fraternity that distributed a songbook with anti-Semitic lyrics.
The lyrics joked about “gassing” Jewish people, a reference to the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
In April 2018, the Austrian government introduced a measure banning girls from wearing the hijab at kindergarten and in primary school, just days after Strache said such a ban would “protect” girls and force them to “integrate”.
Around 700,000 people of Austria’s 8.75 million-population identify as Muslims, and critics blasted the hijab ban as Islamophobic and discriminatory.
Can the party return to government?
According to Politico, the OVP is polling at around 35 percent, a number higher than the 31.5 percent it clinched during the September 2017 vote.
The Social Democrats, a left-leaning party, is polling at 21.4 percent, less than the nearly 27-percent voter support it garnered during the elections two years ago.
And despite the scandals, the FPO is still hovering at nearly 20 percent support, only six points down from the 2017 vote.
If the polling proves accurate during the upcoming election, the OVP and the FPO could band together again to create a coalition and keep the Social Democrats in the opposition camp.
In an apparent move to save face, the OVP has demanded that any future coalition ban the Austrian wing of the Identitarian Movement, a far-right, anti-Muslim group active in several European countries.
Austrian Identitarian leader Martin Sellner came under fire after it was revealed that he had received money and exchanges messages with Brenton Tarrant, who later went on to gun down dozens of Muslims in New Zealand in March.
Austrian media and activist groups have time and again uncovered links between the FPO and the Identitarians.
Kickl responded to the OVP’s demand by dismissing a possible ban as “a deep attack on the rule of law”.
Given the polling, researcher Farid Hafez sees that potential coalition as “the most realistic option” in the upcoming elections, predicting that Kurz will continue to head the OVP but that FPO will put forward Nordbert Hofer, the former presidential candidate.