Austria's far right eyes comeback in polls

Blaise GAUQUELIN
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The Ibiza-gate scandal brought down the OeVP-FPOe coalition in May. Here, protesters' signs read "This government is corrupt"

The Ibiza-gate scandal brought down the OeVP-FPOe coalition in May. Here, protesters' signs read "This government is corrupt" (AFP Photo/ALEX HALADA)

Vienna (AFP) - Austria's far right, relatively unscathed by the so-called "Ibiza-gate" scandal that brought down its government in May, hopes for a second chance in national elections next month.

Former chancellor Sebastian Kurz's conservative People's Party (OeVP) could once again partner with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), said analyst Thomas Hofer, in a re-run of late 2017 when the two parties rose to power together on an anti-immigration platform.

"The conservatives are more cautious today than they were in 2017 to renew an alliance with the FPOe... But this possibility cannot be dismissed because any other form of coalition would be unstable," Hofer told AFP.

- Popular despite scandal -

The OeVP-FPOe partnership came crashing down in spectacular fashion in May when hidden camera footage from 2017 showed then FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache appearing to offer public contracts to a fake Russian backer in exchange for campaign help.

After the footage emerged, Strache resigned as vice chancellor and from all his other posts, the coalition fell apart, Kurz was thrown out in a no-confidence vote -- the first-ever such successful vote in modern Austrian history -- and fresh elections were set for September 29.

Despite the unprecedented chaos, both the OeVP and the FPOe -- founded after World War II by former Nazis -- have sustained their popularity, according to polls.

The OeVP remains the strongest party on 36 percent, while the FPOe stands at 20 percent, six percentage points lower than in October 2017 but neck-and-neck with the Social Democrats, according to a recent survey by the Unique Research institute published in the weekly Profil magazine.

Strache has continued to defend himself from various corruption allegations on his Facebook page.

The page counts almost 800,000 followers -- far more than his party colleagues and most other Austrian politicians -- and its administration was recently taken over by the FPOe.

FPOe leaders have sought to distance themselves from Strache, a heavyweight who flirted with neo-Nazism in his youth and led the party for 14 years.

His wife Philippa, however, is running for a parliament seat on the party's list.

Norbert Hofer, who replaced Strache as FPOe leader, has openly said he wants another coalition with Kurz.

"We extend a sincere hand to the conservatives to continue the work begun together to reform Austria," Hofer, who ran for president in 2016 and narrowly lost to a green liberal politician, told reporters recently.

FPOe campaign billboards which have started to spring up around the central European alpine country of 8.8 million people proclaim the party wants to "renew the patriotic coalition" that Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has touted as a "model" for all of Europe.

- Party infighting? -

However, Kurz has made it a condition of any cooperation that the FPOe's former interior minister Herbert Kickl, another heavyweight known for his incendiary rhetoric, not return to government.

That has put Hofer, who is also seen as an ideologue but who has a softer public persona, in a tough spot and fuelled rumours of party infighting.

One of the biggest controversies of Kickl's tenure were interior ministry raids on Austria's domestic intelligence agency BVT.

Numerous documents were seized, raising fears among Austria's Western partners over possible leaks to Moscow.

The FPOe has a cooperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

In the Unique Research survey, 60 percent deemed an OeVP-FPOe partnership incapable of governing after having drawn ridicule internationally with "Ibiza-gate".

"There are several challenges... A comeback will be difficult," Patrick Moreau, an Austria expert at the French National Center for Scientific Research, told AFP.

Kurz, whose party's popularity now is four percentage points higher than in October 2017 but who cannot form a majority government alone, has so far avoided saying which partner he prefers.

He ended a coalition with the Social Democrats -- who are scoring their lowest-ever poll numbers -- when he took over the OeVP leadership in 2017, triggering that year's elections.

A possible coalition with the Greens has been floated, which would be a first on the national level but similar to those which already govern some Austrian states.

The Greens stand at 12 percent in the Unique Research survey, far higher than in 2017, when they failed to make the four percent threshold to enter parliament in a shock result.