“Driving on the Right” – The Austrian Case


This CARR Insight blog addresses the obvious shift to the right in the Austrian party landscape, and the acceptance of formerly taboo subjects and expressions in mainstream discourse. I refer to the latter as “normalization”. Such normalization goes hand in hand with a certain “shamelessness”: the limits of the sayable are shifting regarding both the frequency of lies and the violating of discourse conventions – as well as regarding repeated attacks on central democratic institutions such as independent media and courts (Wodak 2018). In particular, normalizing the assessment of migrants as a threat to inner security and a burden on the welfare state and education system must be seen as an international development (Wodak 2015a, 2015b; Rheindorf 2017).

The Austrian parliamentary elections on 15 October 2017, saw just such a normalization: The ÖVP (now rebranded as “Ballot Sebastian Kurz – The New People’s Party”, changing colour from black to turquoise) focused almost exclusively on migration issues (equating all refugees with so-called “illegal migrants”[1]). The party also promised to close the “Mediterranean route” to migration; to reduce the legally fixed minimum welfare (for recognized refugees but also other people in need); and ultimately, to reduce the upper limit for asylum applicants, in effect since 2016, from 37,000 to zero (although the number of new arrivals since 2015 has decreased dramatically)[2]. In doing so, Kurz, the new party leader installed on July 1, 2017, adopted almost verbatim the program of the radical right FPÖ.

As Hans-Hennig Scharsach (2017) argues in his book Stille Machtergreifung [Quiet Coup], the FPÖ’s internal structures have changed significantly since Heinz-Christian (HC) Strache took over as leader in 2005, moving the party ever closer to the radical right[3]: members of dueling fraternities, which make up only 0.4 percent of the Austrian population, have, as Hans Rauscher pointedly observes, effectively taken over the FPÖ. FPÖ politicians such as Strache, Hofer, Stefan, Gudenus and Haimbuchner constitute the federal board of the FPÖ as the highest leadership body. They all belong to dueling fraternities, or “Schlagende Burschenschaften”. Remarkably, the leadership of the FPÖ consists entirely of “Allemans”, “Marco-Germans” and “Vandals” (Rauscher 2017).[4]

Core characteristics of the extreme right, such as anti-liberalism, authoritarian leadership and subservience, a so-called “Volksgemeinschaft” (an ethno-culturally defined people), of misogyny and racism, as per Rauscher, apply to most fraternities.

Nonetheless, the incitement and stirring up of resentment by Kurz and Strache was electorally successful.[5] On the one hand, the now national-conservative (right-wing populist) ÖVP gained 4.7% more than their 2013 election results, and thus an overall 31.5% as the first-ranked party. On the other hand, the FPÖ took third place with 26%, gaining 5.5% over their last result.[6] Due to the substantial overlap between the political programs of the FPÖ and ÖVP, coalition talks began soon after. The new turquoise-blue government, though accompanied by loud protest, was inaugurated by President Van der Bellen on December 18, 2017.[7] Thus, under their new chairman, the ÖVP was able to win the chancellorship. But at what cost?[8]

The ÖVP’s adoption of a right-wing populist agenda implies a clear shift to the right (similar developments can be observed in other EU member countries). For Austria, it also marks an abandonment of Christian social values and of its previously clear pro-European position. The fact that some FÖP politicians question universal human rights seems not to bother them.[9] Unlike the year 2000, when the first “black-blue” coalition in Austria caused strong national and international criticism – culminating in EU-wide sanctions against that government (Wodak and Pelinka 2002) – this time it is mainly civil society which voices outrage: for example, over the 21 members of fraternities in parliament on an FPÖ ticket; or over the appointment of extreme-right politicians as ministers.

During the coalition’s negotiations, President Alexander van der Bellen (in office since January 26, 2017) had described several members of the FPÖ as unsuitable to be ministers (namely the Viennese non-acting deputy major, Johann Gudenus, and the MEP Harald Vilimsky). He successfully prevented both the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Justice going to FPÖ officials in the coalition deal. Van der Bellen also succeeded in pushing for the EU-agenda to be relocated from the soon-to-be FPÖ-led Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Chancellery of Sebastian Kurz. Yet for all this,Van der Bellen did inaugurate the turquoise-blue coalition, despite frequent assurances to the contrary while running for president.[10]

This increasing normalization of radical right themes is clearly recognizable in the figure of Johann Gudenus, former non-acting deputy mayor of Vienna and since, December 2017, leader of the FPÖ’s parliamentary group (Pollak 2015). For instance, Gudenus claimed that “Europe is the cradle of the whites. We demand a European-wide, coordinated policy for the family and the population, affirming that Europe is ‘white’”.[11]; He has attacked political opponents by means of, among other things, antisemitic stereotypes: “When you mix red and green, you get yellow. And yellow is the color of Judas, that is the color of treason!”[12] Gudenus rejects the right to asylum on principle, declaring: “Asylum is no human right”[13] Should the FPÖ win the next regional elections in Vienna in 2019, Gudenus – a member of the dueling fraternity Vandalia, may well become major of Vienna.

Naturally, such radical right rhetoric is seldom heard in public. Naturally, there is no straight or even causal link between the radical right’s backstage and the FPÖ’s many frontstage posters, speeches and TV debates and Kurz’s new ÖVP. This recontextualization (and respective coding) happens via social media, the tabloid press, opinion polls; taking place alongside political scandals and provocations, subsequent denials, justifications and repetitive empty phrases (Wodak 2016, p. 38–40). In public, these extreme views are naturally presented in mitigated form, enveloped by a sea of flags and landscape images reminiscent of Riefenstahl’s aesthetics (Rheindorf and Wodak 2018).

The new ÖVP has demonstrably adopted key demands made by the FPÖ regarding migration and refugee policies. The new Austrian government now propagates an extremely restrictive immigration policy (Rheindorf and Wodak 2017) and closed borders (even to Italy and South-Tyrol), including the so-called Mediterranean route. Shamelessly, both the FPÖ and the new ÖVP are actively spreading rumors, strawman fallacies and erroneous reports about migrants and refugees – all of which merge into a single threat scenario consisting of an imagined “invasion” by so-called “illegal migrants” (Ötsch and Horaczek 2017). Even theÖVP’s long-standing, established Governor, Wilfried Haslauer (Salzburg), has adopted the FPÖ agenda, challenged the Geneva Refugee Convention, and claimed that “asylum is a basic right, a theoretical thought game that has its limits in the factual”.[14]

In order to side-step the obligations of the Geneva Refugee Convention and prevent further loss of voters to the FPÖ, ÖVP politicians now define people who have been persecuted and are fleeing as “illegal migrants” in their government program.[15] This implies that they were not actually persecuted but are criminals – people who claim to be refugees and travel to rich European countries, live off welfare and benefits, and thereby endanger the prosperity of those countries. Such fallacies foment resentment and envy: why should foreigners gain access to benefits that take something away from “us”? Such exclusionary and xenophobic politics – sustained and implemented by the formerly Christian democratic ÖVP – corresponds to the welfare chauvinism of other right-wing populists in Europe, and demonstrates the continuing normalization of the radical right. It is fitting that the Green Party referred to the ÖVP’s chairman Sebastian Kurz during the 2017 election campaign as “the better Strache”.[16]

Professor Ruth Wodak is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and is Distinguished Professor in Discourse Studies at Lancaster University and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna.  See her profile here.

© Ruth Wodak. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).


Ötsch, Walter, and Nina Horaczek. 2017. Populismus für Anfänger: Anleitung zur Volksverführung. Frankfurt/Main: Westend.

Pfahl-Traughber, Armin. 2015. Die Nicht-Erkennung des NSU-Terrorismus. In Jahrbuch Extremismus und Demokratie 27, Eds. Uwe Backes, Alexander Gallus, and Eckhard Jesse, 73-96. Baden-Baden: Nomos.

Pollak, Alexander. 2015. Der Hassprediger. Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Johannes G. Berlin: Epubli.

Rauscher, Hans. 2017. “Stille Machtergreifung” der Burschenschafter, DER STANDARD, 1. September 2017, http://derstandard.at/2000063481709/Stille-Machtergreifung-der-Burschenschafter. (accessed: 15.09.2017).

Rheindorf, Markus. 2017. Integration durch Strafe? Die Normalisierung paternalistischer Denkfiguren zur „Integrationsunwilligkeit“. Zeitschrift für Diskursforschung 5(2): 182-206.

Rheindorf, Markus, and Ruth Wodak. 2018. “Austria First” Revisited: A diachronic cross-sectional analysis of the gender and body politics of the extreme right. Patterns of Prejudice (in press).

Rheindorf, Markus, and Ruth Wodak. 2017. Borders, Fences and Limits: Protecting Austria from Refugees. Metadiscursive negotiation of meaning in the current refugee crisis. Journal Immigrant & Refugee Studies 16 (1). DOI: 10.1080/15562948.2017.1302032

Scharsach, Hans-Hennig. 2017. Stille Machtergreifung. Hofer, Strache und die Burschenschaften. Wien: K&S.

Wodak, Ruth. 2018. Vom Rand in die Mitte – „Schamlose Normalisierung“, Politische Vierteljahres Zeitschrift 75.  DOI : 10.1007/s11615-018-0079-7

Wodak. Ruth. 2016. Politik mit der Angst. Zur Wirkung rechtspopulistischer Diskurse. Wien: Konturen.

Wodak, Ruth. 2015a. Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. London: Sage.

Wodak, Ruth. 2015b. „Normalisierung Nach Rechts“: Politischer Diskurs im Spannungsfeld von Neoliberalismus, Populismus und Kritischer Öffentlichkeit. Linguistik Online 73(4): 27–44.

Wodak, Ruth, and Anton Pelinka (Hg.). 2002. The Haider Phenomenon in Austria. New Brunswick: Transaction.

Wodak, Ruth, and Rheindorf, Markus. 2018. The Austrian Freedom Party. In: The New Authoritarianism: A Risk Analysis of the Alt-Right Phenomenon, Hg. Alan Waring, New York: Ibidem (in press).

[1] See the third part of the ÖVP’s election program on order and security: secure.sebastian-kurz.at/ordnung-und-sicherheit/&usg=ALkJrhin9CszbrB0sNM3hlNFAoppXPMGqwRegierungsprogramm. Accessed October 3, 2018.

[2] See de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/293189/umfrage/asylantraege-in-oesterreich/. Accessed 30 November 2017.

[3] See Pfahl-Traughber (2015, p. 75–81) on the differences between right-wing, left-wing and religious extremism.

[4] On the history and development of the FPÖ, see Rheindorf and Wodak (2018), as well as Wodak and Rheindorf (2018).

[5] It is not possible here to detail the complex election campaigns, beset as they were by many (media) scandals, mishaps, rumors and partly criminal machinations. Rather, the aim here is to trace the change of the hegemonic discourse and accepted practices due to a “successful” adaptation and adoption of right-wing populist/extreme-right propositions and rhetoric.

[6] For details, see www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/oesterreich-alle-ergebnisse-der-nationalratswahl-2017-a-1172061.html. Accessed 30 November 2017.

[7] See www.derstandard.at/2000070495198/regierungsprogramm-oevp-fpoe-kurz-strache-ueberblick-analyse. Accessed March 4, 2018, and https://derstandard.at/jetzt/livebericht/2000070552695/koalition-liveticker-neue-oevp-fpoe-regierung-angelobt-tausende-bei-protesten-in-wien. Accessed 4 March 2018.

[8] See www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/seite-drei-ueber-den-wahlausgang-in-oesterreich-kuess-die-hand-1.3710650?reduced=true. Accessed 30 November 2017.

[9] See the multitude of comments in national and international newspapers: www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article169657614/Klarer-Rechtsruck-in-Oesterreich-Kurz-mit-OEVP-vorne.html; www.zdf.de/nachrichten/heute/konservative-oevp-gewinnt-wahl-in-oesterreich-rechtsruck-zu-100.html; www.stern.de/news/rechtsruck-in-oesterreich-nach-wahlsieg-der-oevp-und-starkem-abschneiden-der-fpoe-7661374.html; www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/22/world/europe/europe-right-wing-austria-hungary.html?_r=0. All accessed 17 October 2017.

[10] See www.bundespraesident.at/aufgaben/aufgaben-und-rechte/. Accessed 30 November 2017. On Van der Bellen’s premature assertions regarding a coalition that might include the FPÖ, see: www.diepresse.com/home/politik/innenpolitik/4828916/Van-der-Bellen_Wuerde-FPOegefuehrte-Regierung-nicht-angeloben. Accessed 4 March 2018.

[11] Pamphlet flyer by the “Ring Freiheitlicher Jugend” (chairman Johann Gudenus).

[12] Johann Gudenus at a campaign rally 2011 (“Neue Freie Zeitung”; 27 October 2011).

[13] Johann Gudenus, press release of 19 December 2014: www.ots.at/presseaussendung/OTS_20141219_OTS0076. Accessed 1 July 2017.

[14] See www.salzburg.com/nachrichten/salzburg/politik/sn/artikel/haslauer-stellt-grundrecht-auf-asyl-infrage-179009/. Accessed 5 March 2018.

[15] See kurier.at/politik/regierungsprogramm-rigorose-massnahmen-gegen-asylmissbrauch/302.354.984. Accessed 5 March 2018.

[16] See www.oe24.at/oesterreich/politik/wahl2017/Im-Kern-ist-Kurz-ein-Strache/303871667. Accessed 5 March 2018.