Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the far-right Freedom party, has become Austria’s man of the moment following September’s general elections. A dental technician by training, his garrulous, populist style has struck a chord with much of the electorate.
On election day, the Freedom party won almost 18 per cent of the vote. More tellingly, it scored highly among young electors enfranchised for the first time after the voting age was lowered to 16. Among 16 to 19-year olds, the Freedom party gained more than 44 per cent, and among those below 30 more than 33 per cent.
All were drawn to the message of opposition to the ineffective grand coalition; attacks on immigration and the issue of integration and cultural identity; and bashing Brussels.
Focusing on the grand coalition’s weaknesses won votes from both traditional Social Democrats and conservative People’s party supporters. Xenophobia and euroscepticism were as effective among electors unsettled by globalisation, increasingly concerned about looming economic storms and worried about a dilution of identity.
Mr Strache affects the same casual, populist style as Jörg Haider, his former mentor and later rival. Direct and approachable, like other populist leaders he styles himself as the voice of the man in the street.
Mr Strache has also demonstrated personal resilience. A passionate sportsman while at school, his office in parliament is adorned with trophies testifying to achievements in judo, soccer and tennis. Such endurance and determination were evident in 2005, when he took on the party leadership after Mr Haider stormed off to found a new movement. Mr Strache’s description of sport as “a mixture of power and endurance” could just as well apply to his political credo.
The party’s performance in September has left him more convinced than ever he has further to go. He confidently predicts support for the party has far from peaked – especially if Austria is ruled by another quarrelsome grand coalition.
Mr Strache claims his ultimate goal is to enter a government and influence policy. Whether he ever achieves that is another matter. Time is on his side. At just 39, he is the youngest of Austria’s political leaders. An ineffective grand coalition – especially against the background of slower growth and rising unemployment – could play into his hands
Mr Haider’s death in October has weakened, perhaps irreparably, the BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria) the only competitor to the Freedom party on the far right.
How Mr Strache might perform in government is, however, another matter. With scant executive experience, his populist skills could prove of limited value when challenged with real responsibilities. Moreover, the Freedom party has yet to show it has a genuine programme of its own, beyond its role as a protest movement. Austria will have to wait and see.