Humiliating exit for Austrian far-right’s ‘Mr Clean’

After years of efforts to clean up the image of Austria’s far-right, Heinz-Christian Strache (left) quit Saturday over what he termed a “stupid, irresponsible mistake”. (AFP pic)

VIENNA: Heinz-Christian Strache, the man who successfully steered Austria’s far-right back into government after years in opposition, has himself been brought down by an explosive corruption scandal.

The 49-year-old was forced to quit on Saturday after German media published hidden-camera footage – of unknown provenance – showing him meeting the purported niece of a Russian oligarch over a boozy dinner in a luxury villa on the resort island of Ibiza.

After years of efforts to clean up the image of his Freedom Party (FPOe), founded after World War II by former Nazis, Strache has now been disgraced by what he termed a “stupid, irresponsible mistake”.

In the recordings, Strache is seen promising public contracts in return for campaign help and suggesting he could help bring about staff changes in Austria’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Krone Zeitung, as well as the part-privatisation of public broadcaster ORF.

For many observers, the scene seemed to confirm the stereotypes of the party that Strache had worked so hard to bury: too ready to engage in dubious practices, too close to Russia, and contemptuous of the free media.

‘Mature’ figure

It almost certainly marks the humiliating end of a political career which had come a long way in the three decades since Strache was detained by German police at a torch-lit protest by a group aping the Hitler Youth.

When the former dental technician, brought up single-handedly by his mother in a lower-middle-class area of Vienna, took over the FPOe in 2005 aged 35, the movement was a mess.

Joerg Haider, its controversial but magnetic leader from 1986-2000, had broken off to form his own party, the movement torn apart by its last spell in government in the early 2000s.

But “HC”, his striking blue eyes matching the party colours, restored its fortunes and in elections in 2017, the FPOe won 26% – double the score of the Alternative for Germany a month earlier.

This gave Strache, cutting a mature figure in new glasses, a ticket to enter talks to form a coalition with Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (OeVP).

When the FPOe last entered government in 2000 under Haider, there was uproar in Europe.

This time, the reaction was more muted, with Europe more inured to populists and the FPOe seen as having moderated.

Stream of controversy

Indeed, early in Strache’s leadership, FPOe posters screamed “Daham statt Islam” (“Home not Islam”) but over the years they became less shrill and more subtle.

In the 2017 campaign, the main messages were “fairness” – an elastic term encompassing everything from lower taxes to scrapping benefits for immigrants – and opposition to “Islamisation”.

Strache also moved to clean up the party’s image by suspending members for anti-Semitic behaviour.

However, since the party’s entry into government, it has been dogged by a steady succession of controversies.

Strache himself was forced to apologise last year to one of ORF’s most prominent newscasters, Armin Wolf, after sharing a Facebook post accusing the journalist of spreading “lies” and “fake news”.

Other revelations pointed to extremist sympathies in the party’s base, including links to the Identitarian Movement Austria.

The appointment of the FPOe’s Herbert Kickl as interior minister also sparked fears among Austria’s Western partners over whether information could be leaked to Moscow.

Observers say the manner in which Strache has been brought down will raise questions over the FPOe’s future and to what extent his efforts to detoxify the party have been permanently damaged.