There are so many asylum seekers in the city of Sankt Pölten in north-east Austria, thundered the regional chief of the country’s far-right Freedom party, that a “second Sankt Pölten” would soon have to be built.

“That raises the question of what it should be called,” Udo Landbauer continued as he gave a speech outside a police station in the tiny town of Nickelsdorf on the Hungarian border: “Sankt Islamabad or Rape Town?”

Just a few months ago such inflammatory language, which aims to stoke prejudices among Austrians about immigrants, was a relative rarity in the country’s political mainstream. But the Freedom party (FPÖ) is gaining momentum as fears grow about the cost of living as well as migration, and the EU member state is shifting to the right once more as a result.

Shortly after Landbauer’s November speech, polls showed the FPÖ had become the most popular party in Austria. The latest surveys last month showed it to be the first choice of about 28 per cent of voters, up from 11 per cent in mid-2020.

That compares with 25 per cent for the opposition, the Social Democrats, and 21 per cent for the centre-right People’s party (ÖVP), which governs in coalition with the Green party. The Greens were backed by 10 per cent.

“The core [FPÖ] message, which is all about ‘us down here versus him up there’, was in ashes just a couple of years ago,” said Thomas Hofer, an Austrian political analyst. “But the Freedom party has very carefully revived that and now they have a huge amount going in their favour.”

Social Democrat leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner
Pamela Rendi-Wagner’s Social Democrat party endorsed the decision to block the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU’s Schengen free travel area © Christian Bruna/EPA-EFE

On December 8, Austria’s government blocked the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Schengen free travel area — a contentious move that was condemned by many businesses and liberal politicians, as well as by European allies. The decision was almost entirely down to the ÖVP’s fear of the FPÖ’s resurgence, People’s party insiders and government policymakers told the Financial Times.

The Social Democrats, meanwhile, endorsed the decision despite party leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner having spent the summer insisting the notion of a migration crisis was a myth.

The FPÖ is set to record even more concrete gains this month: the once dominant ÖVP is expected to lose control of the state government of Lower Austria in a bellwether regional election. The loss of the region, which incudes Sankt Pölten, would damage the ÖVP because Lower Austria is the political heartland of the party’s leader, Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer.

It is five years since the FPÖ was last in government, as junior coalition partner alongside the ÖVP. The experiment ended 18 months later when the then FPÖ leader and former vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on tape trying to solicit Russian money in exchange for political favours.

Former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the ÖVP’s then party leader, never fully recovered from the scandal, and after an investigation by state prosecutors widened to throw into question the activities of his own close associates, he resigned.

In the meantime the FPÖ — a longstanding fixture in Austrian politics, with 66 years of experience and five stints in national government — has quietly rebuilt support. Austria’s next general election must be held by the end of next year.

An electorally risky opposition to Covid-19 pandemic restrictions — dismissed by centrists at the time as crankery — evolved into a broader anti-establishment policy platform that has re-energised the party.

This winter’s inflation and energy crises — Austria used to be heavily dependent on Russian gas — further boosted its popularity among disaffected voters. With immigration once more on the rise, some pollsters believe the stage is set for a more enduring resurgence of the FPÖ at the forefront of Austrian politics.

“A lot of the electorate are very, very bad tempered at the moment,” said Marcus How, head of research at political risk consultancy VE Insight. “The landscape is ripe for populists to take advantage of.”

Freedom party billboards in Wiener Neudorf, Lower Austria
Freedom party billboards in Wiener Neudorf, Lower Austria. The region goes to the polls on January 29 © EPA-EFE

The FPÖ playbook is not new, but the scale of social and economic problems facing Austria — in common with many of its European neighbours — means political uncertainties are greater than ever, according to analysts.

An annual poll, conducted by the Sora social research institute at the end of November, showed Austrians’ faith in their democratic system had plummeted. In 2018, the poll showed that two-thirds of Austrians were satisfied with their country’s political system and institutions. The 2022 survey showed two-thirds are now unhappy with them.

According to How, the situation is less the result of the FPÖ’s success than of the failure of the political centre. “The FPÖ is almost in first place by default,” he said, citing the corruption crisis, a lack of ministerial talent and an increasingly bunker-like mentality in the chancellery.

However, attempts by the political mainstream to win back electoral credibility by plagiarising the FPÖ’s strategy are likely to be counterproductive, he added.

“When you have both the Social Democrats and the People’s Party copying the FPÖ, proposing populist solutions for complex problems, why would voters go for the copycats and not the real thing?” he said.

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