Norbert Hofer: the new 'friendly face' of Austria's far-right

Vienna (AFP) –


After the spectacular corruption scandal which brought down Austria's far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the task of salvaging the fortunes of his Freedom Party (FPOe) will now fall to his unassuming deputy, Norbert Hofer.

Hofer, 48, was the FPOe candidate in the 2016 presidential election and had long been touted as a leadership contender within the far-right party.

At a meeting on Sunday senior FPOe officials nominated him as leader, with formal confirmation expected after the European elections on May 26.

- The nearly-president -

Hofer turned in a strong performance in the 2016 presidential poll, surprising many -- including some in his own party.

In the end, he lost the race for the largely ceremonial post to Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green party.

But in Hofer's polished campaign, based around the slogan "Unspoilt, honest, good", the softly-spoken aircraft engineer with a disarming smile presented himself as the FPOe's friendly and moderate face and proved a hit with voters.

Hofer was then named transport and infrastructure minister when Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's conservative People's Party (OeVP) formed a coalition with the FPOe in late 2017, after both parties ran on tough anti-immigration platforms in that year's elections.

His previous success meant Hofer was well-placed for a more prominent ministerial position should the opportunity have arisen.

- Controversial friends -

But sceptics say that behind the grin lurks a steely, dyed-in-the-wool ideologue.

Hofer wrote the FPOe's party programme and critics doubt that the almost constant series of "one-off" scandals dogging the FPOe will end under his leadership.

An example came only this week, when Hofer's friendship with the controversial painter Odin Wiesinger came under the spotlight.

The FPOe had nominated Wiesinger to an official culture committee in Upper Austria state, but he turned down the appointment after a storm of criticism.

In an interview with the Profil magazine published on Saturday, Wiesinger appeared to use threatening language about his critics and give equivocal answers when asked about the topic of Holocaust denial.

Another close confidante of Hofer is Herwig Goetschober of the FPOe-linked Bruna Sudetia student fraternity, which the Falter magazine weekly last year revealed had published a songbook with violently anti-Semitic lyrics.

Goetschober, who at the time said he had no knowledge of the songbook and "categorically" rejected its contents, was given responsibility for social media in Hofer's ministerial press office.

Hofer, a father of four who is in his second marriage, is like many prominent FPOe politicians an honourable member of the Marko-Germania of Pinkafeld, a Pan-German nationalist fraternity.

Despite a paragliding accident which left him relying on a cane to walk, he remains a keen amateur flier.