VIENNA (Reuters) - Founded by former Nazis six decades ago, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO) long ago left the political fringes to establish itself as a mainstream party that could now return to power following a strong showing in Sunday’s election.
The anti-immigration and anti-Islam party is often associated abroad with its former firebrand leader Joerg Haider, who praised Hitler’s employment policies.
But the FPO under Heinz-Christian Strache - its leader since the ousting of Haider in 2005 - has broad support in Austria. It led opinion polls for months before Sebastian Kurz seized control of the conservative People’s Party in May and rode it to victory in Sunday’s parliamentary election.
Kurz has not yet named his preferred coalition partner, but the FPO could well emerge as kingmaker.
The FPO, which helps govern in two provincial and several local governments, says Kurz hijacked its hardline stance on immigration and curtailing social benefits for foreigners.
“One thing is clear: nearly 60 percent of the Austrian population voted for the FPO program,” Strache said after winning more than a quarter of the vote to the conservatives’ nearly 32 percent, according to projections.
The FPO’s performance has worried leftist and liberal Austrians, some of the country’s European Union partners - including German Chancellor Angela Merkel - and the World Jewish Congress, though the party today denies being anti-Semitic or anti-EU.
“The FPO today is much more radical than it was when it last entered government with the (People’s Party) OVP in 2000, but as society as a whole has shifted to the right it is not that obvious,” said Andreas Peham, analyst at the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance that researches the far-right.
In 2000, the EU imposed sanctions on Austria over the FPO’s joining the government. Such a step seems unlikely today, given populist movements in Europe that drove Britain from the EU and put a far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), into the German parliament.
On Monday AfD leader Joerg Meuthen hailed the FPO’s result, saying: “Among European parties the FPO is certainly the one closest to us.”
Like the AfD in Germany’s Sept 24 election, the FPO benefited from public unease about a large influx of mostly Muslim migrants and asylum seekers into Europe. Austria took in about 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers in 2015, boosting support for the FPO even among long-time immigrants.
“The FPO is focusing on asylum policy, not on foreigners,” said Margarethe Schramek, a 51-year-old nurse who said many of her friends from Poland and ex-Yugoslavia also voted for the far right in Sunday’s election.
“You cannot ignore the people. You are not a Nazi just because you vote for the FPO,” said Schramek.
Strache has worked for years to sharpen the party’s focus from broadly anti-foreigner to fiercely anti-Islam. “Not every Muslim is a terrorist, but nearly every terrorist in Europe in years past was a radical Islamist,” he has said.
Strache insists that anti-Semites have no place in today’s FPO, which routinely has to expel members who step over the line. He has visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and has called anti-Semitism a crime.
The FPO portrays itself as the only alternative to Austria’s entrenched duopoly of the Social Democrats and conservatives, denouncing them as elitists unwilling to impose reforms.
The FPO, savvy with social media, nearly got its candidate elected as Austria’s president last year, but has lost some of its appeal since 31-year-old Kurz took control of the OVP.
FPO supporters, until 1986 largely rural, have changed significantly, polls suggest. Like other populist parties in Europe, it has managed to mobilize less well-educated younger voters who feel left behind by globalization.
The FPO’s position towards the European Union has changed often. Its lawmakers voted against joining the EU in a 1994 referendum and suggested holding a referendum on Austria’s continued membership after Britain’s vote to leave last year.
But it has since curbed its anti-EU rhetoric and now professes to be pro-Europe but wants Brussels to hand back more power to member states.
“It (the FPO) has no interest in an anti-EU policy in the medium term,” said political analyst Peter Filzmaier. “They know they wouldn’t get any support for it in Austria, and they have no interest in being demonised internationally.”
Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Gareth Jones