Austrian leader Kurz holds coalition talks with far-right

Austria’s incoming leader Sebastian Kurz on Tuesday agreed to hold coalition talks with the far right, potentially rekindling an alliance previously dubbed a ‘pact with the devil’ by the media.

Here is a brief history of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) and its first period in coalition government from 2000.

SS-admirer Haider

In 2000, the conservative People’s Party (OeVP) – now Kurz’s party – picked the FPOe as its junior coalition partner. At that time the FPOe was headed by Joerg Haider, who praised Hitler’s ‘orderly employment policies’.

He called SS veterans ‘decent people’ and described concentration camps as ‘punishment camps’.

The FPOe has since softened its image. It won 26 percent of the vote in the October 1 ballot.

Ex-Nazi founders

Founded by ex-Nazis, the FPOe emerged as Europe’s strongest far-right force in the late 1990s. The personality of skilled orator Haider proved a hit with Austrians.

Voters had grown tired of coalition gridlock between the OeVP and the Social Democrats (SPOe).

In October 1999 the FPOe became the country’s second political force with 27 percent of the vote in elections.

Centrist parties were thrown into turmoil. OeVP chief Wolfgang Schuessel struck a power-sharing deal with the far-right in 2000.

To appease concerns, Haider signed a commitment to ‘the fundamental values of European democracy’. He also agreed not to hold any ministerial post.

Austria ostracised

The prospect of the far right’s return to power sparked outcry, however.

Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Barak described Haider as ‘the representative of evil’.

Austria’s 14 European Union partners of the time imposed bilateral diplomatic sanctions. Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna.

Hundreds of thousands of people joined demonstrations against the coalition, some turning violent.

Under pressure, Haider stood down as FPOe leader on May 1, 2000. He died in a drink-driving crash in 2008.

Divisions appeared among EU countries over the diplomatic measures against Austria. In September the sanctions were lifted.

FPOe decline

In government, the FPOe pushed through several of its policies including a crackdown on immigration.

But internal rifts started to tear the party apart. Schuessel called snap elections in 2002.

The FPOe’s share of the vote plummeted. Haider formed a new party which continued to govern with the OeVP until it lost support in elections in 2006.

Israel normalised relations with Austria in November 2003.

Lingering ‘Nazi whiff’

Under its current leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPOe has seen a revival.

It shares common ground with Kurz on cutting immigration and taxes.

But the road ahead looks bumpy.

Kurz reiterated Tuesday that his key condition for any coalition partner was a ‘pro-EU’ approach.

The FPOe has floated the idea of a referendum on Austria’s EU membership.

Austria’s Jewish community has branded the FPOe a ‘nationalist wolf’ in sheep’s clothing.

Holocaust survivors recently warned that the FPOe still emanated a ‘Nazi whiff’.