The Freedom Party of Austria
The Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei
Österreichs--FPÖ) 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 FPÖ was the party of persons who
were uncomfortable with the domination of Austrian politics by
the "red-black" (socialist-clerical) coalition governments of the
SPÖ and ÖVP. The party had liberal and nationalist wings, which
frequently disagreed over strategy. Although the FPÖ 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 FPÖ's stress on nationalism made it an atypical liberal
party. Nevertheless, in 1979 the FPÖ was admitted to Liberal
International, the worldwide group of liberal parties. The FPÖ'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 FPÖ was also against the socialist
idea of striving for greater equality between socioeconomic
After Reinthaller's death in 1958, Friedrich Peter became the
head of the FPÖ. Under his leadership, the liberal wing increased
its influence, and ties to the SPÖ were developed. However, the
FPÖ remained a minor party with a limited opposition role in the
parliament. Between 1956 and 1983, the FPÖ's share of the vote
stagnated between 5.0 and 7.7 percent. After the election of
1970, the FPÖ struck a deal with the SPÖ, which promised
electoral reform in exchange for the FPÖ's support of Kreisky's
minority government. The ensuing changes in the electoral laws
helped the FPÖ 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
FPÖ attractive to the SPÖ 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
SPÖ lost its majority, that it turned to the FPÖ to form a
government. The FPÖ's brief three-year experience in power in the
SPÖ-FPÖ coalition of 1983-86 was mostly frustrating, as the
government stumbled from one crisis to the next.
Norbert Steger was FPÖ 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 SPÖ-FPÖ 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 FPÖ convention in the spring of 1986, Jörg
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 FPÖ 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 FPÖ displaced the ÖVP as the second strongest
party, and Haider was elected governor of the province with votes
from the ÖVP. 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 ÖVP and SPÖ 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 FPÖ 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 FPÖ'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
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 FPÖ 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 FPÖ'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 FPÖ
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 FPÖ is direct (there is no tradition of
joining an organization affiliated with the party, as with the
SPÖ). 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 FPÖ's share of the vote in
national elections tripled between 1983 and 1990, when it
achieved 16.6 percent. The FPÖ 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 ÖVP and the SPÖ.
In addition to an organization for people in business, it has
groups for academics, students, and retired persons. The FPÖ'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.
Data as of December 1993