Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom party and his wife Philippa make their way to an election debate in Vienna © AFP
On a large stage draped in black in front of Graz’s 19th century town hall a band blasts out the nationalistic song “Austria, again and again”. The crowd waves flags — the red-and-white of the nation and the green and white of Styria province — in the late afternoon sun. The police presence is heavy.
Here in Austria’s second city the Freedom party, one of Europe’s longest established right-wing populist parties, is in noisy, confident mood ahead of national elections on October 15.
Four years ago, the party topped the polls in Styria – and took 20 per cent nationally. This time Heinz-Christian Strache, its leader, hopes to win power on pledges to prevent the “Islamification” of Austria, deny migrants access to generous welfare payments and boost the incomes of ordinary families.
“Voters don’t see us as a protest party – but a party with solutions,” says Hannes Amesbauer, who tops the party’s list of local candidates, dressed in traditional Lederhosen.
After last month’s breakthrough by the rightwing nationalist Alternative for Germany — which won 13 per cent of the vote in Germany’s election and took more than 90 seats in parliament — a strong Freedom party performance would be the next challenge for mainstream European politicians. It could reawaken fears of a populist insurgency across Europe and make Vienna a more antagonistic EU partner, creating the threat of Austria joining an “awkward squad” of countries prepared to challenge Brussels — and Angela Merkel — on European issues.
But Mr Strache and the Freedom party faces a formidable challenge from Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s youthful foreign minister and leader of the centre-right People’s party. He is riding a surge of support after outflanking the Freedom party on its main issue – Austria’s response to Europe’s 2015 migration crisis.
“My impression is that the Freedom party has lost some of its unique selling point,” says Günter Riegler, Graz’s finance minister and People’s party politician. “There is a still a big trauma here about the events of 2015. This is something on which Mr Kurz has answers.”
Like the Freedom party, Mr Kurz demands an end to all “illegal” immigration into land-locked Austria. The foreign minister was also behind a “Burqa ban” that came into effect this month. And despite leading a party that has been in government for 30 years, Mr Kurz is also successfully portraying himself as an anti-establishment candidate who will shake up an ossified political system. “He doesn’t talk the classic rhetoric of politicians over the past 50 to 60 years,” says Mr Riegler.
Mr Kurz’s surge has dimmed the Freedom party’s hopes of Mr Strache becoming chancellor — but they could become coalition allies, with Freedom taking control of the interior ministry and possibly the foreign office. Opinion polls suggest the Freedom party could push the Social Democrats of current chancellor Christian Kern into third place next Sunday.
Mr Hofer earns loud cheers at the Graz rally for demanding that “Islam can never become part of Austria”. Non-Muslims are in danger of becoming a minority, he warns. “Among workers, we’re the strongest party in Austria,” Mr Hofer tells the FT. Ordinary working Austrians were the most affected by the immigration crisis. “They see on the construction sites, what is happening.”
Ingrid, a medical therapist, likes the message. “We want order — and throw out foreigners,” she says.
But not all are impressed. Christiane, a student at the local technical university, says “It’s very embarrassing. These people are so simple – it’s a polemic.”
Mr Hofer says the Freedom party might benefit from Mr Kurz’s embrace of its policies. “It’s achieved one thing – you can no longer accuse us of being right wing extremists…. but we always say, the politics of the Freedom party would be best implemented by the Freedom party,” he says.
Freedom party posters around Graz describe Mr Strache as a “forward thinker” – not a “late bloomer”. “People know where the Freedom party has stood for many years – and where somebody has just switched on the photocopier,” says Mario Kunasek, Freedom party leader in Styria.
But Mr Kurz is not the only challenge facing the Freedom party, which gained international notoriety in the 1990s for its xenophobia and willingness to airbrush Austria’s Nazi past under charismatic leader Jörg Haider, who died in a high-speed car crash in 2008.
Etched in Austrian voters’ memories is the chaos when it joined a coalition government in 2000. In government, the party “promised Utopia but didn’t deliver,” says Stefan Petzner, a former aide to Mr Haider and now a political consultant in Vienna. “People thought, here comes the Freedom party, all the foreigners will go. Of course, that was not possible. They also did not have good people in government.”
Under Mr Strache, the Freedom party wants to avoid a repeat. “In 2000, we were not prepared. [This time] we have been working for more than a year and a half on our government programme,” says Mr Hofer. Unlike France’s National Front, the Freedom party has not risked calling into question the country’s eurozone membership — something that backfired on the far-right French party during its election campaign.
Mr Petzner says: “This time the Freedom party is desperate to show it is capable of government, that it is internationally acceptable.”