THE VIEW FROM MITTELEUROPA: The new Dual Monarchy? Orban and Kickl’s far-right pact

Since 2021, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has cut an isolated figure in Europe. The glory days of 2015-2021, when at least three of the governments of the  Central European Visegrad Four group were led by illiberal democrats, are a distant memory.

That began to change at the end of 2023, when Slovakia’s Robert Fico returned as prime minister at the head of a nationalist coalition, and the Netherlands’ Gert Wilders led his Freedom Party to secure first place in the Dutch parliamentary election.

Allies are important on the European stage, particularly for the Orban government, which has become increasingly rogue on common foreign and security policy – not least Ukraine – while becoming the problem child in terms of diverging from EU values and law.

Yet the new allies that Orban won are fair weather. Fico has publicly criticised EU sanctions on Russia and ended state-provided military aid for Ukraine. At the same time, his government has quietly towed the EU line, crucially maintaining lucrative ammunition production contracts from which its clientele benefit.

Meanwhile, Wilders forewent the more radical aspects of his party’s agenda as well as the prime ministership in order to facilitate the formation of a governing coalition with centre-right partners.

Bouncing back

The picture looks to be changing. On 30 June, Orban’s party Fidesz announced that it would form a caucus in the European Parliament with the ANO party of former Czech prime minister Andej Babis and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) of Austria’s far-right firebrand Herbert Kickl. The Patriots for Europe group, as it has been named, challenges the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and far-right Identity and Democracy (ID), the latter of which was the erstwhile home of the FPÖ.

On the same day, in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally won the first round of the French legislative elections that were called by President Emmanuel Macron. It is in a strong position to lead the next government, if not imminently, then certainly in the next year.

But one of the most consequential elections of 2024 will be that of Austria, which is scheduled for 29 September. Currently, the government is a coalition between Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Greens. Yet since the end of 2022, the polls have consistently indicated that the FPÖ of Herbert Kickl will secure first place with up to 30% of the vote.

This would represent a near doubling of its result in 2019, which was an annus horribilis for the FPÖ – embroiled as it was in the fallout from the Ibiza corruption scandal that brought its coalition with the ÖVP to an abrupt end. In 2021, Kickl took control of the party, which he shifted hard to the right in an attempt to pick up the pieces. This was a brazen gambit which, at the very least, has not hurt the party’s chances of forming the next government.

There are three reasons for its success. First, the party positioned itself as an uncompromising opposition on a range of issues; from the erratic management of the COVID-19 pandemic, to historic levels of immigration, to the response of the EU to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Second, the traditional ruling parties – that is, the ÖVP and Social Democrats (SPÖ) – are undergoing a crisis of credibility. Corruption scandals are the tip of the iceberg, with the ÖVP enduring reputational damage to the extent that it has distracted from the dubious history of the FPÖ.

Yet the problem is deeper. As Austrian society became more pluralistic over the past decades, the traditional parties experienced brain drain as they were reduced to rumps of clientelist interests averse to reform. The FPÖ, despite very much being a fixture of the “system,” has successfully positioned itself as a repository for frustration with this status quo.

Third, Kickl is a disciplined leader who runs a tight ship. Where the ÖVP and particularly the SPÖ have been consumed by internal feuds, Kickl has contained the latent ressentiments in his party that have damaged it so badly in the past.

Waiting for Kickl

It is not inevitable that the FPÖ will win the election. In the European elections, the party undershot expectations, winning 25.5% of the vote despite mobilising its base. Unexpectedly, the ÖVP was hot on its heels, pipping the SPÖ for second place. Caveats aside, the result indicates that the election will be a three-horse race in which marginal differences may have a drastic impact on potential outcomes.

Furthermore, even if the FPÖ comes first, it is not a foregone conclusion that it will form the next government. Officially, it has no viable coalition partners because all parties are opposed to cooperating with Kickl in particular. They are backed by President Alexander Van der Bellen – formerly leader of the Greens – who specifically stated that he would not necessarily mandate the FPÖ to lead coalition negotiations, citing its “anti-European” stance and refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nonetheless, the most likely coalition partner of the FPÖ is the ÖVP. Both parties have considerable policy overlap in addition to having formed coalitions three times previously. Times have changed, with foreign and security policy becoming a particular fault line. Ministerial portfolios such as foreign affairs and interior will not be relinquished by the ÖVP as casually as in 2018.

Yet the ÖVP has succeeded time and again, most recently on the state level, in swallowing its pride and partnering with the FPÖ in the hope that it can be moderated. In any case, it is unlikely that Kickl – who describes himself as the “Volkskanzler” (People’s Chancellor) – will bend on his party appointing the chancellor, unlike Wilders in the Netherlands.

Kickl is as much an idealogue as a power politician. His experience of the previous stints of the FPÖ in government taught him that trading radicalism for moderation is a recipe for electoral disaster. That assessment may be mistaken, since the FPÖ reliably self-destructed in the past due to incompetence and infighting. But Kickl would be quite comfortable remaining in opposition, where he can rail against the cordon sanitaire that is frustrating the will of the people.

Birds of a feather

Before forming the Patriots for Europe caucus, Kickl had often praised Orban, describing him as a “role model” in his centralised approach to the media, his zero tolerance of immigration, as well as his willingness to confront “globalists” and “eurocrats”. Kickl is not the first far-right politician to have done so; but the difference is that the ideological commitment of Kickl is genuine.

This distinguishes him from his predecessors in the FPÖ whose oxygen was the limelight. Until he became leader, Kickl was the strategist, happiest calling the shots backstage. Slight, bespectacled and sharp-tongued, he regards himself as a man of ideas, an intellectual who studied (but did not graduate in) philosophy. Nonetheless, his passion was for the German idealist philosopher Georg Hegel; specifically, the conservative interpretations of Hegel’s obscure works, elaborated by the school of “right Hegelians”.

The contours of right Hegelianism are distinguishable in Kickl’s thinking, with a vague emphasis on key tenets such as the community, family and state. He rejects the liberalising reforms driven by the spirit of 1968 (ironically the year of his birth), favouring instead a return to something resembling Biedermeier values.

But he is enough of an opportunist that he has also chased the rabbits that are the whimsy of FPÖ supporters and fellow travellers of the identitarian right. Indeed, Kickl’s intellectual vision is not particularly coherent; to say nothing of the FPÖ, which is a reactionary mix of libertarianism, conspiracy theories and xenophobia.

First and foremost, Kickl is an authoritarian. Tellingly, while serving as interior minister in 2019, Kickl said, “the law must follow politics, not politics the law”. His views have not changed, indicating that he will disregard institutional checks and balances where possible.

Building Orbanistan

The design of Austria’s political system is such that constitutional restructuring of the sort conducted in Hungary will not be possible. Proportional representation, combined with the checks and balances provided for by the presidency and federal system of governance, will thus limit unilateralism on the part of the FPÖ.

However, there are ways in which an FPÖ-led government may embed a structural advantage. First, it will be able to determine subsidies for media, on which the oversaturated sector is highly dependent. It will also have direct oversight of the training of journalists, with the ÖVP-Green government having centralised this competence with the chancellor’s office.

Second, popular pressure for constitutional or other legislative reforms could be generated through referenda and plebiscites. The FPÖ has long championed direct democracy, including by proposing that the conditions for holding votes be relaxed. The Fidesz government in Hungary and the previous Law and Justice government in Poland similarly used direct democracy as a populist tool to galvanise public opinion around certain issues, if not change the law. It is very likely that an FPÖ government would use such tactics.

Third, organisational reform could enable the appointment of FPÖ-aligned personnel to senior positions that, in their current form, are already occupied. For example, in 2005, the ÖVP merged the police and gendarmerie, allowing the interior minister to appoint party functionaries at the expense of the SPÖ. Kickl had similar designs when he was interior minister, seeking to “clear up” ÖVP networks in the domestic intelligence agency (BVT). Such reforms can allow the increase of party-political influence over state agencies, including those engaged with security.

Fourth, political appointments to the boards of state-owned enterprises provide an opportunity for patronage and clientelism. This is standard practice in Austria, with the governing political parties divvying up such positions between them. The ÖVP and FPÖ did this to such an extent in 2018-2019 that corruption investigations ensued, with suspects including senior officials in both parties, including chancellor and ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz. The FPÖ is certain to maximise its control of strategic companies in this way if it returns to power.


In the European Council, the FPÖ will be an invaluable ally for Orban. This will manifest in three policy areas; namely, immigration, the rule of law, and the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Immigration is the raison d’etre of the FPÖ, which pledges to reject all asylum applications. It would assume the strongest positions on the topic, in which it will probably be supported by the ÖVP. Incidentally, this does not mean it will necessarily always be in harmony with Orban. For example, Kickl previously criticised the Hungarian government for simply waving migrants through to Austria, while the ÖVP remained silent.

Elsewhere, if the European Commission attempts new sanctions against Hungary over abuses of the rule of law, Orban can count on the support of the FPÖ. Austria, as a net contributor to the EU budget, has more room to throw its weight around, unlike Slovakia.

There is also alignment on the geopolitical issues of the day. The FPÖ attributes the cost-of-living crisis in Austria to EU sanctions on Russia, which have exacerbated inflation. It advocates “peace” in Ukraine, opposing material aid. It believes Austria has done enough with respect to climate change and should continue to burn fossil fuels, especially transitionary options such as gas – for which Austria is notoriously dependent on Gazprom.

This is cover for its preference that Austria be able to restore its historically strong ties with Russia. It is careful in its utterances in that respect, but its past actions speak for themselves. In 2016, the FPÖ signed a friendship treaty with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. When the war began in 2022, the FPÖ claimed the treaty was just a worthless piece of paper from which no meaningful exchanges followed – and that it has since expired and anyhow cannot be located in its archives. Findings by a parliamentary inquiry suggest the opposite, with intensive contacts following the treaty.

Moreover, the FPÖ was a stomping ground of spies acting on behalf of the Russian state, such as the fugitive former COO of Wirecard, Jan Marsalek, as well as double agents from the BVT. During its 2018-2019 stint in government, when Kickl was seeking as interior minister to bring the BVT into line, he did so based on bogus tipoffs provided by Marsalek’s network.

Elsewhere, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – led by Karin Kneissl, an unapologetic Putin supporter who now heads a think tank in Russia – set up its own mini-intelligence service, which is suspected of leaking the formula for the Russian chemical agent Novichok to Marsalek.

Kickl, for his part, is more circumspect with respect to Russia than some of his colleagues. But at the very least, those incidents illustrate that while the FPÖ as an organisation is not necessarily a trojan horse for Russian interests, it has a weak underbelly that provides an easy target.

That has proven to be true of the ÖVP and SPÖ as well. Yet the ideological nature of Kickl, combined with the strong euroscepticism of the FPÖ, makes the party a natural advocate for agendas that are in the interests of Moscow – and likewise championed by Budapest.

Therefore, it is highly likely that Western intelligence agencies will cease  sharing of sensitive information with the Directorate for State Security and the Intelligence Services (DSN). This already happened when Kickl was interior minister; and would be a tragic irony, given that the DSN was established precisely to remedy the damage that was inflicted to its predecessor agency, the BVT.

Reality check

The agenda of an FPÖ government is likely to be frustrated by reality; such is the populist curse. The causes of inflation are complex; somehow lifting sanctions on Russia will be no panacea. The FPÖ wants to build a “fortress Austria,” but doing so would require border controls that would be highly damaging for a trade dependent economy – and face stiff resistance from the ÖVP and its clientele.

Elsewhere, although the FPÖ does not wish to change Austria’s gas arrangement with Russia, it may have little choice. At the end of 2024, the transit agreement between Ukraine and Russia is set to expire, potentially halting flows of gas through the Progress pipeline, which terminates in Austria’s Baumgarten gas hub. It is the last overland route for Russian gas in Europe.

Neither Naftogaz nor Gazprom are planning to extend the transit agreement. This would entail that Austria’s gas relations with Russia would be completely interrupted, if not ended altogether. OMV, which receives approximately 70% of the gas Austria imports from Russia, would have cause to cancel its longstanding contract with Gazprom.

The contents of this contract are classified under state secrecy provisions. However, it is known to favour the seller, leaving little room for manoeuvre by the buyer. For example, the gas imports must be received by Baumgarten exclusively.

It is possible that a European energy group, such as Hungary’s MOL, could replace Gazprom in Ukraine, where it already has an agreement for the transit of Russian oil. Alternatively, Gazprom could reroute the gas via Azerbaijan, from where it would it shipped to Austria via the southeastern interconnectors of TurkStream. This would be more complicated, as Austria and Hungary would need to link up the necessary pipeline infrastructure.

Nonetheless, it is entirely possible that an FPÖ government will preside over the dissolution of one of the main channels of influence that Moscow has in Austria. Given that any such government will necessarily involve the ÖVP, it more likely that the FPÖ will have to stay the course of supplier diversification.

Danubian corridor

If the FPÖ leads the next government, its popularity is likely to be short-lived. Kickl may be an experienced operator, but the party has been repeatedly confounded by the incompetence and venality of its personnel.

Cohabitation with the ÖVP will also be uneasy. Kickl has historical distrust of the party, which he regards as unreliable and opportunistic. Currently, the ÖVP is describing Kickl as a “security risk” and using a parliamentary committee of inquiry to embarrass the FPÖ over its Russian connections. Nonetheless, there is a basis for cooperation, with the business clientele of the ÖVP quietly sceptical of sanctions.

Thus, Viktor Orban may soon find that he has a steady ally in Vienna that is willing to join his Central European axis. This will not radically alter the balance of power in Europe in his favour, not least because right-wing forces across the bloc are fractious.

However, it will widen divergences around key strategic issues, such as Russia and Ukraine, as well as the European Green Deal and the rule of law. And in 2025, this Central European axis might also be further strengthened if ANO, the ally of Fidesz and the FPÖ from Patriots for Europe, leads the next government in Czechia.

At the very least, the incoming European Commission will find itself dealing with more intransigence than it is accustomed to.

Marcus How is head of research & analysis at ViennEast Consulting in Vienna. This article was originally published on BNE Intellinews. 

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