The Success of the Freedom Party
4th Level of Analysis: Domestic Factors

The fourth level in evaluating the success of the Freedom Party is the domestic one. I think it is the most important of all the levels, since it is almost always underestimated by foreign observers, unless they have a very detailed knowledge of Austrian history and culture. To understand the appeal of the Freedom Party, it is absolutely important to fully understand the degree to which the political world in Austria is dominated by clienteleism, corruption and a political class that controls access to power and money.

In the 1920ies, Austria had been crippled into a tiny country desperately struggling for economic survival, an identity and a way into the future. This was the age of the great depression, of ideologies, of masses on the streets. In Austria, the late 1920ies and early 1930ies were also the years of something often called a "civil war" between two blocks: The conservative Christian Democrats on one side (Catholic, pro-Habsburg to some degree, traditional with links to civil servants, farmers, entrepreneurs) and the Social Democrats on the other (secular, anti-Imperial, progressive with links to labourers and peasants) on the other.

Within a few years, the Austrian society was divided into the two blocks: Be it societies that organised kindergartens, be it hiking associations, motorist clubs, union fractions, funeral societies, gardening associations, student representative bodies, trade unions or god knows what there was always a "red" (social democrat) and a "black" (conservative) version of it. Companies, clubs, individuals everything was divided up between the two wings. This period ended in 1934, when the two paramilitaries of the fractions started to openly fight each other. This "civil war" ended quite soon with the defeat of the socialists, the end of the "Red Vienna" era and the prohibition of their party, their clubs and other manifestations (such as the unions).

The conservatives focussed on the consolidation of their power domestically, and led a strict anti-German and anti-Anschluss course internationally. In this context it is worth noting that the other two political flavours (social democrats and nationalists) were in favour of an Anschluss of what was left of the Habsburg Empire. By 1938, the conservatives had established themselves as a Fascistoid (some say Fascist) ruling body.

Nevertheless, under the pressure of Nazi terror, economic sanctions and ultimately military threats, the Nazis finished the Anschluss this very year. Now the Nazi party was legalised in Austria and it was the conservatives to be among the first groups of politically persecuted people (alongside with Social Democrats, obviously). Many leading figures of the conservatives and the social democrats were inmates in the same concentration camps (as political enemies of the Nazis, they were in the same category and often treated similarly). When the war ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany, Austria re-gained independence and found a new identity in its role as a victim (see on this matter what I have written above).

What is important to understand are two things: Firstly, many leading politicians of Austria were united by the terrible experiences they shared as former victims of Nazi persecution; the unity that emerged from this was described as the "Geist der Lagerstraße" ("Spirit of the Camp Street"), a spirit of conciliation and mutual understanding. Secondly, both conservatives and social democrats vividly remembered the period of the late 1920ies and early 1930ies, when they openly fought each other making it ever easier for the Nazis to influence the vulnerable balance between the two wings and weakening the society as a whole.

These two points explain why Social Democrats and People′s Party put their heads together after 1955 and set up a system in which power was divided fairly in two halves between the two. A system called "Proporz" was established, in which every public post that went to one party was supplemented with a post that went to the other. If the Austrian ambassador to Washington was a Social Democrat, the ambassador to London would have to be a conservative. If the chair of the social security company was a Social Democrat, the one of the pension fund would have to be a conservative.

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Jörg Haider, the Freedom Party & Austria

Intro - German Nationalism since 1848 & Freedom Party 1949 to 1986 - 1986 to 1999: Haider's Freedom Party - 2006 to 2008: Split & Crisis - Success Analysis: Individuals (Haider) & Society since 1980 - Success Analysis: Systemic Support - Success Analysis: Domestic Causes - Domestic Causes, Part II - Domestic Causes, Part III

Further Reading

Official Website of the Freedom Party of Austria

Wikipedia on the Austrian Freedom Party

Wikipedia on Politics in Austria

The Economist's Obituary for Jörg Haider