Knives out among Austria’s far-right after poll rout

Former head of Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache leaves after addressing a news conference in Vienna, Austria October 1, 2019. — Reuters pic
Former head of Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache leaves after addressing a news conference in Vienna, Austria October 1, 2019. — Reuters pic

VIENNA, Oct 2 — Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) grappled yesterday with the fallout from heavy losses in Sunday’s elections as its scandal-hit former leader said he was bowing out of politics.

The man at the centre of scandals which have dogged the party over the summer, disgraced former vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, announced yesterday “a total withdrawal from politics and public life” — but this may not be enough to stem the instability at the heart of the party.

Strache, who led the FPOe for 14 years, was forced to quit all his posts in May over the so-called “Ibiza-gate” tapes, which showed him appearing to offer public contracts to a woman he believed was a Russian oligarch’s niece in return for campaign help.

That affair put an end to the FPOe’s coalition with the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) of Sebastian Kurz.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s election, another scandal broke, this time involving Strache’s alleged misuse of party money.

All this led to a stinging rebuke from voters, who sent the FPOe plummeting to 16 per cent, down almost 10 points from their 2017 results.

‘Home-made’ problem

Strache said on Tuesday that he considered his membership of the party suspended and wanted to “avoid at all costs... any splits within the FPOe”.

His announcement was seen as an attempt to pre-empt an election post-mortem meeting of the FPOe’s national executive yesterday.

New leader Norbert Hofer said after the meeting that the party was indeed suspending Strache, and added: “If the allegations of the past few days aren’t refuted, he will be expelled.”

Last week prosecutors confirmed they were investigating Strache’s expenses and had questioned his former bodyguard and his former office manager “on the suspicion... of submitting fake receipts” costing the party more than €5,000 (RM22,920.40).

Strache again yesterday vehemently protested his innocence and insisted that he had been the target of a shadowy conspiracy.

The party had previously also enthusiastically echoed this idea and some voices inside the party say its main mistake in the campaign was not being aggressive enough.

“Instead of closing ranks we let this attack destabilise the party,” controversial artist and FPOe member Odin Wiesinger told AFP.

“We made too many useless concessions to our opponents,” he added.

But since Sunday’s poll debacle, many others have had the knives out for Strache.

“The problem is home-made,” the leader of the FPOe in the Tyrol region, Markus Abwerzger, told Oe1 radio.

“It’s not some foreign intelligence agency or the media who have got us into this situation but we ourselves,” he said, calling on the party to stop playing the victim.

Gone but not forgotten

Some had speculated that Strache would split off from the FPOe to form his own party. Even if that threat seems to have receded for the moment, the various investigations into his affairs may yet bring months of embarrassing headlines for the party.

In addition, the Strache family name may not disappear from the corridors of power entirely. His wife Philippa — who according to Austria media is also alleged to have benefited from the misuse of party funds — is still in the running for one of the FPOe’s parliamentary seats.

The winner of Sunday’s election, OeVP leader Kurz, will be watching the far-right in-fighting with some trepidation.

He needs to find coalition partners to secure a majority in parliament and had made it clear before the election that he would be open to working with the FPOe again.

However, this option may now be off the table for the foreseeable future as prominent FPOe figures make clear their preference for a spell in opposition to recover.

“In future Kurz will have to take into account the instability in the FPOe, which will make it very difficult for him to fulfil his ambition to govern in a stable way over the next five years,” political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP.

Results issued late Monday, with nearly all votes counted, showed the OeVP on 37.5 per cent, the FPOe on 16.2 per cent, the centre-left Social Democrats on 21.2 per cent, the Greens on 13.8 per cent and the liberal Neos party on eight per cent. — AFP

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