Would participation in the government disenchant the AfD? The FPÖ at the top has caused a sustained shift to the right, as a look at Austria demonstrates.

Red and white flags at FPÖ protests

Once controversial, now street-ready: the FPÖ Photo: Hans Klaus Techt/APA/dpa

For me, as an Austrian, the debate about the possible participation of the AfD in the government is like a trip back in time. It has been almost 25 years since the ÖVP formed a coalition with Jörg Haider's FPÖ against major opposition. The central arguments that were used then to support FPÖ participation are now being recycled in Germany.

The trick (we call it “single shame”) that apologists for far-right parties use to put themselves in a good starting position revolves around the word “exclusion”: they tirelessly emphasize that the party in question is being excluded. In this description, exclusion is something that happens to you and not something you cause yourself. What is ignored is that de facto extremist parties exclude themselves through their radical agenda.

In Austria in the 1990s, the SPÖ in particular was accused of pursuing an “exclusion strategy” against the Freedom Party. The FPÖ is “constantly demonized” by the SPÖ, according to Andreas Khol, president of the ÖVP club during the first ÖVP/FPÖ government. It was common sense at the time that “exclusion” from the FPÖ guaranteed constant growth.

Marc Félix Serrao follows this narrative in a comment in the NZZ: He writes repeatedly about the “exclusion” of the AfD and notes its “demonization.” Although he calls the AfD “aggressive and illiberal,” he does not admit to his opponents that his rejection may be well-founded. To him, AfD's critics seem irrational: they are guided by “panic” instead of “reason,” have a “propensity for hysteria” and tend toward “magical thinking.”

Notable omission in the NZZ

Following Serrao, one could almost think that the AfD itself does not contribute to the criticism it provokes. In the commentary there was no space to refer to the fact that three AfD state associations are classified by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution as “certainly far-right” and that the AfD is listed as a “suspected right-wing case.” Wing extremism” in the federal government.

An omission that is all the more notable since Serrao makes an open call for the AfD to participate in the government: “Exclusion has made the AfD great; Anyone who wants to bring her down again has to let her co-rule. The sooner the better: before the party gains even more support.”

An argument that is as erroneous today as it was then with the FPÖ: Serrao can suppress the extremist character of the AfD, but he considers it problematic enough to prevent “further support.” Is a party that would be better off if it did not receive an increase in votes (and therefore power) suitable for the leadership of the State?

Austria is avant-garde

Serrao presents readers with two possible consequences if “right-wing populists” come to power: “Either they become disenchanted” or “they deradicalize.” To support his hypothesis, Serrao reports on the Swedish Democrats, the True Finns, and the Danish People's Party.

Despite the scandals, comebacks are happening faster and faster and the electorate is constantly growing.

It leaves out the FPÖ and thereby hurts my patriotic feelings. After all, Austria is at the forefront when it comes to the integration of right-wing populist parties. We were already in coalition with the radical right when that still resulted in “sanctions”!

Why does Serrao ignore the FPÖ? AfD and FPÖ hardly differ in terms of content: Austria, as Germany's “little brother”, offers itself as a model for comparison in all aspects.

Also in 1999/2000, lack of ability to govern and extremism were the main objections to allowing the FPÖ to co-govern. Proponents of an ÖVP/FPÖ coalition responded that it would lead to moderation or disenchantment of Haider's party. Both predictions turned out to be wrong.

After the early failure of Schüssel I's government, the FPÖ governed two more times; each coalition was marked by scandals. The last ÖVP/FPÖ coalition ended with the FPÖ vice-chancellor embarrassing Austria on a global scale.

Shame is irrelevant for right-wing voters

Today no one claims that the FPÖ has moderated throughout its participation in the government. In fact, the party became increasingly radical. For ÖVP Chancellor Karl Nehammer, FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl represents a “security risk”: “Yes, definitely,” Kickl is far-right, Nehammer said. Today, the FPÖ no longer even distances itself from the identitarians: according to Kickl, it is an “interesting project worth supporting.”

The old magic word “disenchantment” has also disappeared from Austrian discourse. Although the FPÖ lost votes after each crisis, it always won again. The FPÖ has consistently ranked first in the polls since the end of 2022.

Recoveries are becoming faster and the electorate is constantly growing. More disenchantment is not possible, but for FPÖ voters, embarrassments and scandals seem irrelevant.

The FPÖ, at the head of the state, did less to change the Freedom Party than to provoke a sustained shift to the right in Austria. Linguistic sociologist Ruth Wodak says: “What Martin Sellner and the AfD discuss in secret meetings is the public position of Austria's most promising chancellor candidate.”

The Austrian example clearly shows that participation in government by far-right parties can have unpleasant results. Ignoring this and instead seeing hypothetical advantages of AfD participation in the government borders on magical thinking. Anyone who thinks it's a good idea to let the AfD co-govern should take a look at the devastation the FPÖ has left in the government.

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