No 46: Conservative and far right social policy in Austria

A future model for a populist Europe?

Do far-right Austrian politics foretell the future of European populism?
Heinz-Christian Strache at an FPÖ election campaign event in Vienna, Austria, 2006. (Pressemappe/Creative Commons)

by Mark Foord

In 1988, Thomas Bernard, writer and critic of the silence surrounding Austria’s Nazi past, premiered his final work ‘Heldenplatz’. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ‘Anschluss’ (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany), the play derives its name from the square in which Hitler gave his victory speech to jubilant crowds. The work rotates around the suicide of a returning Jewish professor who was dismayed to discover that anti-semitism remained a powerful undertow in postwar Austria. Provocative lines such as, ‘there are more Nazis in Vienna now, than in thirty-eight’, led to demonstrations by the far right within and outside the theatre. President Kurt Waldheim attacked the play as ‘an insult to the Austrian people’.

Ever a pessimist, Bernard would have been unsurprised that one of those demonstrating from the theatre stalls, Heinz-Christian Strache, would, 30 years later, be the leader of the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) and vice chancellor of a governing coalition alongside the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP), the traditional Christian Democrat Party. The previous ÖVP-FPÖ regime in 2000 led to European Union (EU) sanctions, mass demonstrations and torrid international press coverage — awkward for a country sensitive about history. Today across Europe populist and far-right parties have headwind and the response of the EU has been muted. All that is solid melts into air.

Austria lies outside the main arteries of world politics but remains a key actor in Central Europe: ‘the Balkans begin in Austria’. Floating between East and West, neutral and outside NATO, it’s located on a crossroad of cultures and traditions. Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary and leader of the ruling party Fidesz has seen his brand of nationalist, illiberal democracy bolstered by FPÖ support and Austria’s 2018 EU presidency.  

The 2017 Austrian election illustrated how the search for electoral advantage has disinhibited traditional conservative parties from stealing the policies and rhetoric of the far-right. In Austria, the prize for the ÖVP was the opportunity to impose shock doctrine reforms to tax, welfare and labour market policy, under cover afforded by adopting the xenophobic and racist social policy agenda of the FPÖ. As such, this forms an emerging pattern for a European populist social policy.

In May, the coalition government imploded. Strache was spectacularly skewered by the so-called ‘Ibiza’ sting. Then, a day after the ÖVP’s victory in the European elections, an SPÖ/FPÖ alliance ousted Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in a no-confidence vote. New elections are planned for September. The collapse has brought to an end the latest attempt to bring the far-right into government. The ÖVP are momentarily out of power, but their legislative record remains, with profound implications for women, minority groups, asylum seekers and the welfare system. ‘Going to Ibiza’ by the Vengaboys might be top of the Austrian iTunes chart, and a surreal protest anthem for the left, but as Strache argued after the 2017 election, ‘Sixty per cent of the electorate voted for the policies of the FPÖ’. The summer provides a short pause before what will probably be a very dirty election. So it goes.

The populist turn in Austria

In 2017, the first election to the Nationalrat (National Parliament) since the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ led voters to elect the most right-wing government in post-war Austrian history. The FPÖ gained 26 per cent of the vote (an increase of 5.5 per cent from the 2013 election), only just trailing the SPÖ (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreich), who scraped into second place with a humbling 26.9 per cent. Until May 2017, the FPÖ polled clear first, causing panic in the ÖVP. This led to the youthful and charismatic Kurz taking over leadership of the ÖVP, re-badging it Die neue Volkspartei (‘Kurz Liste’) and running a hagiographic campaign based around himself. The ‘Austria first’ ÖVP received 31.6 per cent of the vote, an increase of 7.6 per cent from 2013, allowing Kurz to become a spectacular leader largely untethered from stabilizing intermediary institutions (party structures, social movements, etc.) who is, as Boffo et al write, ‘strongly committed to both neoliberalism and the expansion of their own self-referential power’.

‘Race’ has long been a salient issue in Austrian politics but the intensification of the ‘refugee crisis’ became an important underlying factor in shaping the populist turn. Austria sheltered a higher proportion of refugees than most other EU countries – a move actively supported by civil society groups and many individuals. A Chatham House survey found that 65 per cent of Austrians agreed with the statement, ‘all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped’. The FPÖ ran an election campaign utilising the concept of a ‘Blut und Erde Heimat’ (blood and earth home), defining Austria and Austrian culture in opposition to the racialised dangerous ‘other’. They promoted nostalgic sentiments for a threatened Heimat. One election poster said: ‘Schutzen was wir lieben: Österreich steh auf fur unsere Heimat’. Translated, ‘Protect what we love, Austria stand up for our home’.

Kurz outflanked the FPÖ by instrumentalising ‘race’ and co-opting the rhetoric and policy terrain of the far-right. This paid rich electoral dividends. Opratko argues that authoritarian right-wing populism has become a truly hegemonic cross-class project in Austria, as 74 per cent of blue-collar workers and 64 per cent of entrepreneurs voted for a right-wing party; whilst 30 per cent of 16–29-year-olds voted FPÖ; pensioners providing the only solid demographic behind the SPÖ. The focus on ‘race’, and specifically how to close the Balkan and Mediterranean routes, and ‘migrant integration’/’expulsion’ allowed Kurz to avoid scrutiny and hard questions about his neoliberal social policy agenda, whilst intimating that the ‘hard choices’ would be met through cuts to asylum seeker support and the racialised outsider.

Social policy and the coalition

Until recently, the Austrian social welfare system has avoided the ruptures faced by other Western economies and emerged largely unscathed from the 2007–8 financial crisis. Bruno Kreisky (the first SPÖ chancellor since 1920) used his 1970 premiership to institute a wide range of progressive reforms, which both main political parties of right and left maintained in a bipartisan consensus around high public spending and generous welfare provision. In 2018, the OECD suggested that Austria spent 26.6 per cent of GDP on ‘social spending’ (cash benefits, direct in-kind provision of goods and services, etc.), compared with the UK’s 20.6 per cent. Austria shares features with both the German insurance-based ‘Bismarckian’ welfare model and the high-spending Scandinavian approach. Mishra described Austria as a ‘Social-Corporatist model’ that engaged major economic interests and the state to develop a consensus on the maintenance of a mixed economy and the welfare state. For a newly arrived migrant from austerity torn Britain, the public realm appears astonishingly well resourced:  generous social assistance programmes; the pursuit of full employment; elements of worker participation, and a relatively paternalistic, conflict-averse capitalism. The 14-month salary system (an extra month for a summer holiday and another for Christmas) is highly prized and also paid to pensioners. Unlike Germany, Austria had not created punitive active labour market programmes such as Hartz IV.

Traditionally, the FPÖ have opposed neo-liberal reforms to the welfare system, favouring the development of nativist welfare policies that privileged Austrians, whilst discriminating against the ‘outsider’. Kurz’s social policy agenda was strongly wedded to re-valorising capitalism through ‘making Austria more competitive’. It proposed reducing welfare entitlements and public spending, cutting corporate tax, and shifting the power balance between capital and labour by undermining collective bargaining and promoting labour market liberalisation. In coalition, as quid pro quo for the FPÖ smoothing a path for their pro-capital/anti-welfare agenda, the ÖVP gave full rein to the policy programme of the FPÖ – a Faustian pact. The governing programme contained a bipartisan approach which enabled the ÖVP to pursue its neo-liberal agenda, whilst giving rhetorical space to their partners to construct a notional national community based on nativist or völkisch approaches to welfare. The FPÖ appeared willing to tolerate policies which damaged their base in order to implement harsh policy measures towards migrants. Tiefenbacher notes that ‘Heimat’ and the feeling of community it engenders was offered as a symbolic ‘compensation’ for a lack of employment opportunities, higher incomes, etc.

A full outline of the coalition social policy programme is beyond the scope of this blog. In brief, driven by the neo-liberal aspirations of the ÖVP at its centre was the implementation of an Austrian style Hartz IV. Intended to blur the distinction between insurance-based unemployment payments and social assistance, it abandoned the principle of ‘compensation’ and the commitment to maintaining the living standards of the unemployed; abolish measures supporting the reintegration of older unemployed workers into the workforce; reduce the budget and scope of government employment services; implement a 12-hour day/60 hour week; expand ‘mini-jobs’ outside the social insurance system to promote flexible labour markets; attack union enforced wage regulation covering 97 per cent of employment; reduce the ability of unions and the ‘Arbeiterkammer’ (labour office) to drive collective bargaining and ‘social partnership’; review university funding, potentially leading to fees, and unravel tenancy laws ensuring the cost of renting in cities is contained.

The FPÖ were handed responsibility for internal security and policing, migrant integration and asylum policy; a platform they energetically used to undermine support systems for migrants. This was achieved through cutting integration budgets; reducing the hourly permissible rate paid to refugees in public sector work to a maximum E1-50 per hour; adjusting child benefit payments for Central European workers repatriating money to the level of their ‘home’ country; proposals attacking abortion rights. Finally, through what we might call social policy of the spectacle, symbolic action such as banning head coverings for Muslim children in kindergarten/primary schools, accompanied by attacks on NGOs and church groups, who the FPÖ portray as part of a profit-seeking ‘asylum industry’.

Looking forward

The September elections will prove a testing ground for Kurz’s governing blend of illiberal ‘nativist’ social policy and full throttle neo-liberalism. The political gravity has shifted rightwards. In Braunau, my nearest town, the FPÖ Deputy Mayor was forced to resign after sending out an Easter poem likening migrants to ‘rats’, an image resonant of National Socialist propaganda. Despite shocking examples of racism, the FPÖ remain popular among a significant segment of the population. Post Ibiza, whether the ÖVP hoovers up FPÖ voters and governs alone, or are forced to seek a coalition partner, Kurz’s pragmatic realpolitik has legitimated anti-migrant rhetoric.

The opposition has much to do, but there are plenty of spaces for resistance in Austrian society. The SPÖ are entrenched in the trade unions, remain electorally stronger than many Western European centre-left parties and are relatively untainted by the Blair/Schröder ’Third Way’/‘Dritte Weg’ approach to politics. Austrians are very attached to their ‘Vater Staat’ welfare system and aware they have much to lose.

However, when last in government, the SPÖ implemented a ban on the Muslim niqab in public spaces, paving the way for the coalition to implement new measures curtailing symbols of Islamic religiosity. In discussion with Christian Kern (the previous SPÖ leader), Paul Mason argued the party must set out a clear defence of social rights and welfare pluralism, whilst resisting calls to embrace nativism.

There remains a highly unionised labour force working within a high-tech manufacturing sector. Precarious labour has grown but Austria is far from the hollowed out and anomic economy many experience in the UK. The metal workers union have recently taken successful industrial action and the other unions seem primed to more aggressively defend their interests. There is a strong liberal left civic society rooted in the Universities, NGOs, and the arts. The attempt by the FPÖ to delegitimise Caritas and Diakonie (agencies with thousands of active volunteers) was a poor strategic choice. Local government in Austria is impressively devolved: the 9 Länder federal subdivisions and the urban left strongholds of Vienna and Linz offer real opposition to the centre. The Gemeinde – small local authorities with population bases of often less than 1,500 people – have considerable autonomy, tax-raising powers, strong party representation and the potential to mobilise against cuts. Attempts by the government to encourage the costly Gemeinde to rationalise and merge have united local communities across party lines.

In a previous blog, Markus Ketola asked rhetorically, ‘does radical right populism matter for social policy?’ He suggests it ‘fosters a particular discursive logic that challenges pluralist approaches to welfare delivery’.  Across Europe, the rise of authoritarian forms of neoliberalism, blending and eliding with nativist social policy, is an outcome of the decomposition of democracy, hollowed out by austerity, precarious living and the mobilization of the far right. The situation in Austria is reflective of broader and troubling shifts in the realignment of Conservative/Far Right parties in Europe and poses a serious challenge to pluralist approaches to welfare delivery. It matters very much for Social Policy.

Mark Foord moved to Austria in 2017. He taught Social Policy at the Universities of Salford and Uclan, and has published on homelessness, social care and supported housing. His recent work has focused on food banks and community development. Currently, he is writing a reflexive account of the crisis of UK Social Work education, teaches a little, and works with homeless people in Salzburg. Email him at

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