The Carinthian model: the role of sub-national claims in the Freedom Party’s dominance in Austria’s southernmost state

Reinhord Heinisch


The Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) is best known for national campaigns based on a right-wing populist agenda, by advocating nativism, ethnic identity, Euroscepticism, and a selective mix of market liberal and protectionist policy position. In the past, the FPO had been closely associated also with German-nationalist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Slavic claims, from which the party has now officially distanced itself. In fact, liberalism and (German) nationalism were - before the party’s conversion into a populist radical right party (PRRP) - the FPO’s core ideologies. All of this identifies the FPO as a national political party with a national agenda implying that sub-national claims should not matter or would in fact detract from its national message.

Yet, when the Freedom Party was headed byjorg Haider - the party leader who transformed it into a populist party at the national level —, he was closely associated with the Austrian state (province) of Carinthia, which also served as the FPO’s stronghold. In fact, the Carinthian party organization, called since 1986 FPK or Freedom Party in Carinthia, at the time dominated the FPO. In that state, Haider not only achieved substantial electoral majorities but it is from Carinthia that he and his party could exert political influence at the national level. However, this constitutes something of a puzzle. How can a political actor and party excel both at the national and sub-national level? This is even more remarkable, given that Carinthia is only a small and economically somewhat backward province among nine states that make up the Federal Republic of Austria. In other countries where regional party organizations dominate the national party, such as Zurich in the Swiss People’s Party, Antwerp in the case of the Belgian Vlaams Belang, and even Lombardy in the case of the Lega Nord, these are generally the politically most relevant and prosperous parts of their respective countries. Carinthia is in many ways the opposite and has been struggling to keep up with the modernization and economic growth underway in the richer parts of Austria.

As will be shown in this chapter, the Carinthian case is special in that the messages by the FPO at the regional level were not merely extensions of the national-level but rather distinct. It is also not the case that the FPO’s national policy positions are simply an especially close fit for the Carinthian context. Nor can it be argued that the Carinthian electorate is configured such that it has a special socio-demographic affinity for the Freedom Party. Even the claim that Haider resonated especially with Carinthians because he, as one of their own, rose to international prominence is not convincing because he was originally not even from that state but had moved there as a young party functionary. This leads to two related research questions this chapter seeks to answer: First, what were the special political characteristics of Carinthia that Haider and his party could exploit to construct a series of claims that were effective at the subnational level1? Second, what was the effect of having a PRRP as the dominant party in government for more than a decade? Specifically, do we see a regional populist model of governing?

Theoretical discussion

Theories explaining the success of populist parties have focused on two sets of factors: opportunity structures in terms of demand-side explanations (Arzheimer and Carter 2006) and winning formulas in terms of the supply side (Kitschelt 2007). When applying explanations to the regional level, we have to look for factors that pertain more directly to certain sub-national territories versus others. These include existing ethnic ami socio-cultural cleavages as well as historical legacies that shape some regions more than others. Certain regional peculiarities may also lend themselves to center-periphery' mobilization (Alonso 2012) and lead to a separate identity formation vis-a-vis the nation state. This in turn, may provide a fulcrum for populist mobilization because it allows political actors to portray the state’s population as the “good/pure people” (Mudde 2007) aggrieved or threatened by (national elite) outsiders. Populists can then campaign on a platform against national elites, the media, and other outside “meddlers” who are claimed to be ignorant of the region’s true history' and culture.

Other literature on the causes of populism has centered on political systems suffering from crises of legitimacy due to political corruption, influence peddling, and a lack of responsiveness to voter demands (Van Kessel 2011). This explanation also follows the arguments about former mass parties having turned into cartel parties which, through the penetration of state institutions, can extract resources to such an extent that they become isolated from voters and their own activist base (Katz and Mair 1995). There are of course important supply-side explanations having to do with the attractiveness of the candidate, the winning formula of the messages propagated, and the strategic deftness of party-political competitors (Van der Brug, Fennema and Tillie 2005).

Based upon the preceding discussion, I formulate the following empirical expectations: (1) Sub-state territorial claims-making is more likely to occur in states in which political trends are likely to be most different from national and other state-level trends (general opportunity structure). (2) In terms of opportunity structures, the FPO is more likely to be successful if it is able to exploit ethnic and socio-cultural cleavage conditions and/or if the legitimacy of the established local political power structure is severely compromised (specific opportunity structure). (3) In terms of supply-side factors, the FPO is more likely to be regionally successful if it can provide a political offer that uniquely resonates with the voters in the region (winning formula).

When measuring regional RRPP success, this work focuses on two criteria: electoral results based on votes achieved in relation to other provinces and the extent of government participation. Whereas the first criteria is straightforward, the latter is more complicated. As accepting the burden of government always proves difficult because this step may compromise the credibility of RRPPs with its voters (McDonnell and Newell 2011), it poses organizational and logistical challenges such parties cannot easily meet (Bolleyer 2008: 35—38). In terms of regional Austrian politics, there is a second problem when applying this criterion. Thus, we should note here that in some Austrian regions, government positions are allocated proportionally to all parties, depending on their share of the votes. This peculiar feature of parties being automatically represented in government is dubbed Proporz referring to influence based on proportionality. Under this arrangement, an undesirable party may be formally in government but its portfolios are heavily curtailed as it is relegated to politically unimportant responsibilities."

In order to examine the claims made by the FPO, this work draws on the analysis of manifestos, campaign materials by the regional party organizations, and statements by regional party leaders as well as media reports and interviews to determine whether they pertained to a sub-national agenda and notions of territoriality.

The FPÖ: its regional organization and geographic divisions

The Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs (Freedom Party of Austria) was established by predominantly German-nationalist activists on 7 April 1956. Organizationally, it was both the successor to a short-lived predecessor, dubbed Federation of Independents (Verband der Unabhangigen/VdU),3 and heir to a long and well-entrenched ideological orientation in Austrian history dating back to the German-nationalist stirrings in post-Napoleonic imperial Austria. In fact, the FPO views itself as the inheritor of the national-liberal legacy enshrined in the bourgeois-democratic (anti-imperial) Revolution of 1848. Its very' name “Freedom” Party recalls this tradition directed against a centralized (formerly imperial) state closely connected with the Catholic Church (Riedl- sperger 1978).

Whereas Social Democrats, Conservatives, and Communists enjoyed the active support or at least the passive toleration by the Allies, which occupied Austria from 1945 to 1955, former Nazi-party members were formally banned from political participation until 1949. Later they found a natural political home in the FPO. Many of its leaders served prison sentences for being implicated in Nazi war crimes such as the founder of the FPO, Anton Reinthaller, himself. Although the Third Camp was rather fragmented, it received crucial support from the large number of former Nazi-party members, who resented the job restrictions and political prohibitions they were confronting in the immediate postwar years (Hobelt 1999). Another important group for the party were the ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe, who had found a new home in Austria but had no particular ties to Austria’s other parties (Riedlsperger 1978). Politically, the new party was locked into an ideological corner. Moreover, Christian Democratic Austrian People’s Party (OVP) and the Social Democratic Party (SPO) formed successive coalition governments, using their hegemonic position in Austrian politics to build a clientelistic following while cutting the FPO off from the channels of power.

In the 1960s a new leadership tried to overcome the FPO’s ghetto position by recruiting members of a new generation, especially from academic circles and more liberal elites so as to reduce the influence of the wartime cohorts. Modernizing the party also required a more consistent and intellectually sound programmatic basis designed to consolidate the position of the FPO as a small nationalist-libertarian party. The FPO’s change in direction toward greater political liberalism and opening itself toward cooperating with the Social Democrats met with tremendous internal resistance. Especially anti-leftist circles and the radical nationalist right wing in the party rejected the new course. Eventually, the leadership faced a challenge by Neo-Nazi extremists several of whom subsequently left the party and founded the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party (NDP) (Luther 1995: 438). The German-nationalist far-right was particularly strong in the Carinthian party organization. Its leading figure was Otto Scrinzi who in 1968 became deputy leader of the national FPO party executive against the expressed wishes of the national party leadership. A former high-ranking member in Hitler’s SA, Scrinzi was a tireless promoter of radical German-nationalist and far-right causes (e.g. a general amnesty for Nazi war criminals). He was also a father figure of sorts to the young Haider whose seat in the Austrian parliament the latter inherited in 1979 (Hobelt 2003).

The deep ideological divisions between the nationalist and liberals as well as anti-clerical and more conservative pro-Catholic tendencies, not to mention those willing to work with the Social Democrats followed partially the regional and geographic divisions within the FPO. This meant that the regional party chapters in Upper Austria and Carinthia emerged as the most nationalist whereas for example the Salzburg and Vienna chapters were more liberal. The bottom- up federal organizational structure of the Freedom Party' implied that the national leadership had relatively little power in affecting developments at the regional level. At the same time, the regional-level power structure ensured the recruitment of like-mined party activists, thereby strengthening the specific ideological profile of the regional chapter.

Within this structure of vertical integration, the state branches also dubbed the “state party” are the organizational backbone of the FPO as it provides the party with a remarkable organizational reach. Its bottom-up organization makes national top-down decision-making generally difficult. This is because at ever)' level, lower ranking units may send delegates to the next higher level and thus enjoy representation all the way of to the Federal Party Congress. The nine state party organizations are also important because they possess the organizational wherewithal to function, if necessary, as autonomous and cohesive units. This is because they mirror the national party’s organizational structure and can autonomously elect their leaders. They also determine the composition of the state party’s decision-making bodies and are the principal sources of party revenue. In fact, the provincial party branches are the general gateway to FPO membership because new recruits typically affiliate with the FPO by joining up at a local chapter (Heinisch 2016). Thus, the state party can in most instances determine on its own the terms of membership, set a membership fee independently of the Federal Party, and has wide-ranging discretion in selecting local and regional candidate slates. It is noteworthy that more than half of party revenue are derived through the state party organizations. This provides regional party organs with significant leverage not only vis-a-vis the center but also each other (Sickinger 2009: 145). It also explains both the limited outside control FPO regional chapters have to fear and its relative influence at the national level.

In order to survive politically, the national FPO leadership was often forced to make concessions to the internal opposition,’ manage party fragmentation/’ and run the organization by relying on alliances with various regional chapters. In 1980 the party was evenly divided between liberals and right-wing nationalists when the liberal Norbert Steger was elected as national party leader by a slim 55.3 per cent majority. He subsequently accepted a coalition offer by the Social Democrats in 1983 in hopes of positioning his part)' more like an Austrian version of German Free Democrats. The heterogeneity of the FPO was an even greater problem in government because the party received much greater public scrutiny. The organizational looseness and lax party discipline translated into a public perception of discord and incompetence aggravated by the FPO’s general inexperience in government. Following sharply declining poll numbers for Freedom Party nationally, Haider - then the young and charismatic head of the FPO’s Carinthian branch - emerged as the unofficial leader against the more liberal national party elite. When sensing an opportunity to challenge the leadership of Norbert Steger in 1986, Haider and his supporters convened a party congress in which they mobilized the grassroots to depose Steger. This event was a watershed for the Freedom Party as Haider would not only transform the FPO into a radical right-wing populist formation but also lead the Carinthinan organization to play the preeminent role in the national party.

From 1986 to 1999, the FPO increased its electoral share from 5 to 26.9 per cent (Table 7.1) and the party’s share of seats in parliament grew from 5 to 52. By the end of the 1990s, the Freedom Party had also greatly expanded its power at the regional and local level, emerging as the second largest party in five of Austria’s nine provinces (including the capital of Vienna). However, in Carinthia it emerged as the dominant party and had a lock on the governorship for over a decade (Dachs 2008: 97—99). How was this possible?

If we summarize the discussion thus far, we would conclude that already prior to the FPO’s conversion to a RRPP, it had developed a distinct far-right German-nationalist and nativist profile in Carinthia. This allowed the party to appeal credibly to segments of the Carinthian electorate that shared similar views and was willing to defect from their traditional party-political loyalties. The growing strength of the FPO at the regional and national level could be leveraged against each other and establish the party as a credible political force.

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