Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ)
The far-right party made significant gains at the September 2008 elections, boosting its seat total to 38 seats. Its strong showing at the European elections held in June 2009 and subsequent state and local elections suggests that the FPÖ would make further gains in the event of an early election. Both the SPÖ and the ÖVP have stated that they will not consider a partnership with the FPÖ, but a teaming with the OVP has become more feasible amid a general rightward shift across Europe that has made the FPÖ’s positions on immigration and the EU less controversial. In any case, differences over economic policy would likely mean that partnership with the ÖVP would be a stormy relationship.
The FPÖ emerged in 1956 as an offshoot of the defunct League of Independents Party (VdU). The party’s fortunes improved dramatically in 1999, when its gains at the expense of the ÖVP (both parties won 52 seats) disrupted the longstanding partnership between the ÖVP and SPÖ, resulting in the formation of an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition in early 2000. The partnership was troubled from the start, as pressure from the EU forced Haider to step down as the party’s leader and cease his active participation in Schüssel’s government. But even from a distance, Haider managed to create problems for Schüssel, playing a leading role in a campaign to force the Czech Republic to close a controversial nuclear power plant by threatening to veto Czech membership in the EU, and fomenting factional divisions within the FPÖ that resulted in the early collapse of Schüssel’s government in 2002.
The party suffered a stinging defeat in the November 2002 elections, winning just 18 seats in the Nationalrat. Even so, the ÖVP picked up most of the seats lost by the FPÖ, ensuring that the combined forces of the two parties would be good enough for a majority in the Parliament. Schüssel would have preferred to reach an agreement with the SPÖ, especially given the post-election ouster of the FPÖ’s moderate leaders in favor of right-wing allies of the Haider, but the SPÖ set too high a price on its participation, and Schüssel had little choice but to hope that a weakened FPÖ would prove to be more cooperative than it was in the previous government. It quickly became clear that Haider had no intention of making Schüssel’s hopes a reality. Even so, when Haider tacked to the center and left the FPÖ to form the BZÖ in early 2005, Schüssel had little choice but to stick with Haider’s faction, which commanded the backing of a larger share of the FPÖ’s parliamentary delegation.
The FPÖ enjoyed a remarkable comeback at the 2006 elections, recovering from a split in early 2005 that left it controlling just seven seats in the Parliament to win 11.2% of the vote and 21 seats in the Nationalrat. However, the FPÖ has moved decidedly to the right under the leadership of Heinz Christian Strache, who rose to head the party after its moderate wing split off to form the BZÖ in 2005, a development that has renewed doubts as to the party’s suitability as a partner in a center-right coalition government.