The best part of a year in office has barely softened Heinz-Christian Strache. “I most certainly am not exaggerating . . . for sure, not every Muslim is a terrorist but in the past 10 years almost every terrorist was a Muslim,” Austria’s vice-chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom party snaps when asked whether he has deliberately reinforced the stereotype of refugees as criminals.
A hardline stance against migration propelled Mr Strache’s nationalist party to a share of power in Austria last year, joining a government led by the People’s party of Sebastian Kurz, who topped the polls largely by taking a similar line. Mr Strache makes out that he was flattered by the imitation but says that in politics: “You always need the original.”
His Freedom party is now part of a rightwing counter-revolution in Europe. In Italy, the far-right League party led by Matteo Salvini is shaking EU politics and rattling markets with a combative approach to eurozone budget rules. But Mr Strache is using a different playbook to try to prove that nationalist, anti-establishment politicians are here to stay — combining traditional nationalist rhetoric with orthodox economics and a focus on nitty-gritty domestic issues such as smoking bans and speed limits.
Mr Strache has a lower global profile than Mr Salvini but his ambitions may prove just as disruptive as his counterpart’s across the Alps.
“Until the tanker is travelling in the right direction, it takes time to feel it — but the steps have been taken, and they are significant steps,” says the 49-year-old, who has led the Freedom party since 2005.
“I’m convinced that this project — correcting the mistakes of the past 10 years and before, making Heimatland Austria fit for the future — will need 10 years.”
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Strache readily lists achievements so far. Security has been boosted by 4,000 extra police, a new border protection force and tougher procedures for illegal residents and failed asylum seekers. Punishments for sex offenders have been increased. Austria’s cumbersome health insurance system has been streamlined.
In stark contrast to Italy — which has angered EU partners by flouting eurozone fiscal rules — Mr Strache says Vienna is balancing the budget. He sees his party as reviving a “national liberal” tradition unleashed by the 1848 revolution in the then Austrian Empire.
“It was the so-called people’s revolution where workers, students, farmers and citizens rose up together against a totalitarian system,” the former dental technician said.
Some policies have been deliberately pitched at the Freedom party’s core, working-male constituency: reversing a ban on smoking in restaurants and testing higher speed limits on autobahns.
But critics said the new government had shied away from radical economic reform and focused instead on disciplined messaging and avoiding domestic controversies.
“It is more about communicating than actually doing — the stage management is good,” said Milo Tesselaar, a political strategist in Vienna. “There’s a lot of symbolism in terms of regaining control over cultural values in a conservative, non-elitist manner.”
One ally of Mr Kurz added: “There are some crazies among them but generally they [the Freedom party] have been responsible allies of the government.”
Mr Strache’s softly-softly approach reflects the benefit of experience. Austria was ostracised by EU partners in 2000, when the Freedom party — then led by charismatic Jörg Haider — was previously in government. The badly prepared party performed disastrously and its support slumped.
Unlike Mr Haider, Mr Strache has taken a top role in the government — though in December he plans to cede responsibilities for four weeks as he takes paternity leave. He negotiated a 182-page coalition programme with Mr Kurz, including much of his party’s programme.
In Vienna, the consensus view is that the new government is likely to prove long lasting. Support for the People’s and Freedom parties has remained steady in opinion polls since last year’s election. Opposition Social Democrats have become embroiled in internal battles, while Austria’s Green party has failed to make the advances of its counterpart in Germany.
Where the government has attracted international attention is over migration. Austria, on the front line during the continent’s 2015 crisis, has led a drive to deter asylum seekers and better protect EU borders, even suggesting asylum applications should have to be made before entering the bloc.
European solidarity, Mr Strache says, “is based on protecting Europe from illegal immigration and finally securing the external borders”. Europe voters had rejected the irresponsible “welcome” culture of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, he said.
Suspicions of xenophobia are exacerbated by the Freedom party’s links with Burschenschaften, traditional male fraternities that date back to the 19th-century and are associated with pan-German nationalism and, often, anti-Semitism.
Mr Strache has fought to correct the image, expelling extremists “where red lines have been crossed” and, in 2016, making a private visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem. “Anti-Semitism is to be rejected vehemently,” he said.
Nationalism is also a positive trait, he argued. “In England, patriots do not mean anything negative for me — or French or American patriots. Healthy patriotism is something to behold.”
The Freedom party has instead been outspoken in warning against Austria’s “Islamification”. Mr Strache said his target was “the politicised, radical Islam that hides behind a religion”, with dangers lying in “parallel societies” within Austria, “where people reject important western, democratic values”.
The Freedom party has a formal pact with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia, and western fears over pro-Moscow sympathies were fuelled when Karin Kneissl, its choice as Austria’s foreign minister, invited Mr Putin to her wedding in August and was filmed dancing with him.
Mr Strache says alliances with other political movements are a “completely normal diplomatic process — and we see it as the responsibility of a neutral country”. Ms Kneissl’s dance-floor diplomacy, showed “that, apparently, small Austria, in the heart of Europe, is taken seriously as an intermediary”.
In Europe his party is allied with far-right, fiercely Eurosceptic parties, including those led by France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. It wants powers to be returned to national governments
But the Freedom party stops far short of wishing the EU’s destruction or suggesting Austria should ever leave the eurozone. “On the contrary, we love Europe,” Mr Strache said. “[But] because we love Europe, we have to criticise commissioners and wrong decisions.”
After May’s elections to the European Parliament, Mr Strache hints, the Freedom party will push for a realignment of political alliances. “I believe a lot is up in the air and that in the future we can have a significantly stronger and more powerful caucus of European freedom parties.”
However, he is not a fan of efforts by Steve Bannon, former adviser to President Donald Trump of the US, to rally European rightwingers. “I don’t know Mr Bannon. I believe there is no need for a Mr Bannon to lead a European movement which already exists.”
Praise for Kickl as arguments fly
Austria’s tough approach is largely the work of Herbert Kickl, the interior minister who previously masterminded the Freedom party’s election campaigns. He has been the cause of most of the controversies surrounding the new government.
Last month Mr Kickl ran into trouble over an email from a ministry spokesman urging police forces to limit information to critical media and to identify the nationality and asylum status of suspects. In February, he oversaw controversial raids on the offices and homes of senior domestic security officials following accusations of misconduct, which raised fears among western allies that the Freedom party was seizing control of intelligence services.
But Mr Strache describes Mr Kickl as “probably the best” interior minister since the creation of the postwar Austrian republic. “This is a minister who in the field of security has implemented in the first 10 months a lot of what the population has wanted for a long time but which never happened previously.”
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