He has been denounced as a xenophobe and an extreme nationalist. He has been pictured wearing a military uniform at an alleged far-Right gathering. But when Heinz-Christian Strache appears at an election rally in Austria, thousands of enthusiastic supporters, from teenagers to pensioners, give him a roaring welcome. “We are the owners of Austria and we will determine who gets in,” Mr Strache, head of the far-right Freedom Party, told a cheering crowd that was chanting his name.
The police film his public appearances because supporters of Mr Strache have, in the past, made the Hitler salute or displayed Nazi insignia, which is illegal in Austria—under a law that Mr Strache is seeking to ban.
The reputation of Austria, which has been tarnished by child abuse scandals, is on the brink of another setback as a new breed of politicians, led by Mr Strache, gain momentum and are expected to capture almost a third of the vote on an anti-foreigner ticket at elections on Sunday.
The growth of extremist tendencies in Austria have caused concern. In 1999 the country incurred sanctions from other members of the EU after a far-right party led by Jörg Haider formed a government coalition. Eight years on, and two years after the controversial coalition was ousted at the last elections, extremist sentiment is still prominent among a large proportion of the population. This time Mr Haider’s former protégé, Mr Strache, is expected to capture about 20 per cent of the vote, and his new party, Alliance for the Future of Austria, could win more than 8 per cent.
Mr Strache, 39, who overthrew Mr Haider as a leader of the Freedom Party with even more hardline policies against foreigners and the EU, is likely to establish himself as the third-largest political force in the country.
The former dental technician has campaigned successfully with slogans such as “Homeland instead of Islam” and “Vienna must not become Istanbul”.
He once wrote: “We must not allow our own sons to be insulted as ‘pigeaters’ in our schools and our daughters to be exposed to the greedy stares and gropings of whole hordes of immigrants.”
The controversial campaign has reshaped the agendas of the mainstream parties, the Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party, which have refocused their campaigns on immigration issues and criticism of the EU. The move was an attempt to prevent haemorrhaging votes to Mr Strache after pollsters predicted that their share of the vote could drop to a record low of below 30 per cent each.
The popularity of Mr Strache was not damaged despite photographs being published of him in his youth wearing military uniform at an alleged far-right gathering and also showing Mr Strache raising his hand and stretching three fingers in an apparent covert version of the Hitler salute, used widely in the neo-Nazi scene. Mr Strache said that he was merely signalling for three beers in a pub.
The Jewish and Islamic community have protested against the extreme agendas of the far-right politicians.
Behind the swing towards the far-right is growing dissatisfaction with EU policies and the perceived rise in immigration after the EU expanded eastwards. The country has, however, low unemployment and crime rates and the economy is booming as Austrian companies establish market domination in Eastern European countries.