The Freedom Party of Austria

Austria Table of Contents

The Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei sterreichs--FP) was founded in 1956 by Anton Reinthaller, who had served in the Seyss-Inquart national socialist government formed in collaboration with Hitler after the Anschluss in 1938. Anticlerical and pro-German, the FP was the party of persons who were uncomfortable with the domination of Austrian politics by the "red-black" (socialist-clerical) coalition governments of the SP and VP. The party had liberal and nationalist wings, which frequently disagreed over strategy. Although the FP was not an extremist party, it attracted many former Nazis with its philosophy that Austrians should think of themselves as belonging to a greater German cultural community.

The FP's stress on nationalism made it an atypical liberal party. Nevertheless, in 1979 the FP was admitted to Liberal International, the worldwide group of liberal parties. The FP's ideology emphasized the preservation of individual liberties in the face of the growth of the state's power. The party enthusiastically endorsed free enterprise and individual initiative and opposed a larger role for the state in the ownership of enterprises. The FP was also against the socialist idea of striving for greater equality between socioeconomic groups.

After Reinthaller's death in 1958, Friedrich Peter became the head of the FP. Under his leadership, the liberal wing increased its influence, and ties to the SP were developed. However, the FP remained a minor party with a limited opposition role in the parliament. Between 1956 and 1983, the FP's share of the vote stagnated between 5.0 and 7.7 percent. After the election of 1970, the FP struck a deal with the SP, which promised electoral reform in exchange for the FP's support of Kreisky's minority government. The ensuing changes in the electoral laws helped the FP increase its representation in parliament in subsequent elections, despite the fact that its vote totals did not rise at the same time. Peter's hope that he could make the FP attractive to the SP as a coalition partner was dashed by Kreisky's success in obtaining absolute majorities in the elections of 1971, 1975, and 1979. It was only in 1983, when the SP lost its majority, that it turned to the FP to form a government. The FP's brief three-year experience in power in the SP-FP coalition of 1983-86 was mostly frustrating, as the government stumbled from one crisis to the next.

Norbert Steger was FP party chairman between 1980 and 1986. A member of the party's liberal wing, Steger served as vice chancellor and minister for trade in the SP-FP coalition. He was not a charismatic politician, and, as the coalition's troubles mounted, he began to lose support among the party's rank and file. At an FP convention in the spring of 1986, Jrg Haider, leader of the Carinthian branch of the party, launched a successful coup against Steger and became the new chairman.

Haider, born in 1950, is a handsome, dashing figure whose self-confidence strikes many observers as verging on arrogance. He comes from the nationalist wing of the party and has stirred controversy on many occasions by his remarks about Austria's proper place in the German cultural community. On one occasion in 1988, Haider referred to Austria as "an ideological deformity." Since Haider took control of the FP in 1986, the party has achieved dramatic gains at the polls in both national and provincial elections. In the March 1989 provincial election in Carinthia, the FP displaced the VP as the second strongest party, and Haider was elected governor of the province with votes from the VP. This election marked the first time that a provincial governor was not from either of the two major parties. Haider's term as governor was cut short in June 1991 by the controversy unleashed by his remark during a parliamentary debate that the Third Reich's employment policy was a positive model. The VP and SP joined together to pass a vote of no confidence against Haider, marking the first time in the history of the Second Republic that a governor was forced to step down. Haider did not allow this setback to create challenges to his leadership of the party. In three provincial elections in the fall of 1991, Haider led the FP to outstanding showings, proving that Austrian voters were increasingly ready to vote for alternatives to the two major parties.

A less charitable interpretation of the FP's rise under Haider is that Austrian politics has taken a turn to the right. At times in his career, Haider has given his critics ample reason for accusing him of neo-Nazi tendencies. He has frequently pandered to the sentiments of the far right, but his everyday political discourse is more moderate. Haider tailors his remarks to his audiences, and he resorts to the rhetoric of right-wing populism in order to inspire the conservative nationalists in the FP.

A major element in Haider's prescriptions for Austria is his desire to cut down drastically on the number of foreigners allowed to live in the country. Haider consistently argues that immigration is excessive and is causing serious problems for Austrian citizens in the areas of jobs and housing. Haider's campaign against foreigners was a major reason for the passage of a 1991 law that decreed that foreign workers could not make up more than 10 percent of the work force. In 1993 this ceiling was reduced to 9 percent when a new law, the Resident Alien Law, went into effect. Early in the same year, Haider sponsored a referendum to further tighten the control over the number of foreigners in Austria. Although he got only half of the 800,000 signatures he sought, the language Haider used in his campaign was extreme enough to cause large counterdemonstrations.

The tensions between Haider and the liberal wing of the party caused five FP members of the Nationalrat to leave the party in early 1993 and form a new party, The Liberal Forum (Das Liberale Forum). Led by the FP's 1992 presidential candidate, Heide Schmidt, the group won seats in the Upper Austria provincial elections of May 1993. The new party was also recognized by Liberal International, which was expected to expel Haider's FP from its ranks in 1994 because it advocated policies incompatible with traditional European liberalism.

Despite these setbacks, Haider is expected to remain a formidable force in Austrian politics. His sense for the issues that trouble many voters and his ability to enunciate views too extreme for the larger parties will likely win him a substantial following during the rest of the 1990s as the country struggles to adapt to post-Cold War conditions.

Membership in the FP is direct (there is no tradition of joining an organization affiliated with the party, as with the SP). The party's membership grew from 22,000 in 1959 to 40,000 in 1990. The membership-voter ratio declined as the party made dramatic gains at the polls. The FP's share of the vote in national elections tripled between 1983 and 1990, when it achieved 16.6 percent. The FP has a strong base of support in the provinces of Carinthia and Salzburg. The party draws much of its support from the middle class, salaried employees, and the self-employed. More than 60 percent of its voters are under the age of forty-four, and many are well educated. The party has few auxiliary organizations, in comparison with the VP and the SP. In addition to an organization for people in business, it has groups for academics, students, and retired persons. The FP's party structure is decentralized, and provincial organizations play an important role in party affairs. The party chairman, who is elected by the party conference, chooses the party manager and general secretary. The general secretary acts as a liaison between federal leaders and provincial organizations.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress