Correspondent in Berlin
The umpteenth internal brawl within the FPÖ, the Austrian far-right party, has ended with a more radical wing reinforcement and the resignation of its last president, Norbert Hofer, who took over the leadership after the retirement of Hans Christian Strache, affected by the “Ibizagate” scandal. Hofer confirmed last night that he is leaving the presidency and his ties to the party. “My career at the head of the FPÖ ends today,” he said in a statement, after months of struggle for leadership with former Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, who aspires to run as a candidate in the 2024 general elections.
“It has been very difficult to rebuild the party after the sudden end,” Hofer explained briefly, referring to the breakdown of the coalition in which they ruled with Sebastian Kurz’s Popular Party (ÖVP) until 2019, and presuming that, despite the difficulties, “we have managed to stabilize the party at a level of around 20% in the polls.” It is the merit that he claims to remain in his position as third president of the National Council that he is considered the visible head of the moderate wing of the party.
Kickl sparked an internal debate several weeks ago about a hypothetical snap election and Hofer’s slim chances as a candidate. Several regional leaders have already spoken in favor of Kickl who is present for the FPÖ, after that during the pandemic it was he who put up active resistance against the restrictions. He has publicly refused to abide by rules such as the mandatory mask in Parliament sessions. “They let Hofer show his face after Ibizagate, when the party plummeted, but the latest polls double the result of the 2019 elections and they want to take control at a more convenient time,” explain internal party sources. The moment chosen for the internal attack has been the almost a month that Hofer has spent hospitalized in a clinic, receiving physiotherapy treatment for a back injury suffered during a paragliding accident that he suffered in 2003 and whose consequences still drag.
In a last desperate attempt to stay at the forefront of the party, Hofer has tried to win over the tougher wing by radicalizing his discourse. In one of his most recent statements, he has said that the Quran is more dangerous than the coronavirus. «I am not afraid of the coronavirus. The coronavirus is not dangerous. The Koran is much more so, “he said at a rally in Vienna. These are, however, several families of the party completely overturned with Herbert Kickl, who served as Austrian Interior Minister between 2017 and 2019 and who has publicly declared his interest in the candidacy, regardless of Hofer and his influence on the match.
The importance of this relatively small party lies in its influence on Austrian politics, because it conditions the positions of the conservative ÖVP, and in the role that it in turn plays Austria in its relationship with the Visegrad Group, which brings together the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland and openly challenges the joint positions of France and Germany within the EU. It is still open if Kickl finally wins the candidacy or if there is still another battle to be fought. Hofer wrote a tweet last night wishing his successor “all the best”, but the message was later deleted, to reappear as the press release with the formal statement in which those good wishes no longer appeared.
In the 2019 parliamentary elections, after the scandal in which he appeared a video recorded in a villa in Ibiza which showed Strache offering political favors in exchange for party funding, the FPÖ lost nearly 10% of the vote and fell to 16.2%. The demographic institutes attribute this increase in popularity mainly to the radical discourse against restrictions during the pandemic maintained by Herbert Kickl, who has declared in parliament that those who wear a mask incur “a self-exaggeration about abiding by the rules.” Unlike Kickl, Hofer did not march alongside neo-Nazis at the forefront of anti-restriction demonstrations or attend Identity Movement conferences. But they should not mislead these differences, nor would a reading suggesting that Hofer and Kickl are enemies would be correct. For many years they have played to represent a double side of the party and take turns taking center stage as is more convenient in electoral terms, a calculated teamwork that allows articulating the positions of the party towards various potential reserve banks. What can be expected is a radicalization of his speech in the coming months and a much tougher opposition to the coalition in which Kurz has governed with Los Verdes since January 2020.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism