Scandal-hit star of Austrian far-right attempts return
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Vienna (AFP) –
The former beacon of Austria's far-right, former vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, may be under investigation for embezzling more than half a million euros, but that has not deterred his most ardent supporters.
"He's the only one who's honest," says Elisabeth Bauer, a 53-year-old chef, sipping a drink at an outdoor Oktoberfest in Vienna organised by Strache's new political party.
Despite vowing to step away from public life after a corruption scandal that triggered the spectacular collapse of the Austrian government last year, Strache is back and running for mayor of Vienna in this Sunday's city elections.
His straight-talking, man-of-the-people image and hardline anti-migration rhetoric made him one of the most successful far-right leaders in Europe.
It also propelled him into Bauer's living room, which she says is still plastered with his posters.
Unconcerned about his youthful flirtation with neo-Nazism, she says Strache fights powerful elites and speaks to working-class citizens like herself on equal terms.
But for many of the 26 percent of voters who propelled him to the vice-chancellorship in 2017 as head of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), that image was tarnished when a video surfaced in May 2019 in which he appeared to offer state contracts in exchange for campaign money.
In the video, secretly filmed on the Spanish island of Ibiza, Strache tells a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch that the FPOe receives hundreds of thousands of euros in illicit funding and proposes a plot to turn Austria's largest newspaper into an FPOe mouthpiece.
- Chanel bags and dog food -
The fallout from the video was instant: Strache resigned in disgrace and the government collapsed soon after.
The FPOe threw Strache out and labelled him a traitor, but the damage was done: in the snap elections in the wake of "Ibiza-gate", the party plummeted to just 16 percent.
Meanwhile, although the investigation into improper party funding was dropped, the public prosecutor and federal police are still investigating Strache for allegedly defrauding the FPOe of more than 580,000 euros ($680,000).
He is accused of billing the party for an array of private expenses by submitting fraudulent receipts, according to several Austrian newspapers with access to case files.
Among those expenses were items as diverse as dog food, his wife's Chanel handbags, drinks served for his daughter's birthday, as well as between 2,000 to 3,000 euros per month for the mobile game Clash of Clans -- all despite the fact he was earning a salary of some 20,000 euros a month.
Strache's lavish lifestyle also included private jet flights to his holiday destinations and -- if one report traced to his bodyguard is to be believed -- a Viagra-fuelled party with escorts that Strache also claimed as a work-related expense.
All of this means little to uber-fans like Bauer.
"He could have paid it from his savings, couldn't he?" she says.
- Vienna comeback? -
But the number of those supporters has dwindled.
The Oktoberfest event was a far cry from his last run for Vienna mayor in 2015, when he addressed thousands of cheering, flag-waving fans in front of the city's central St Stephen's Cathedral.
Strache is now trying to get his new party "Team HC Strache - Alliance for Austria" onto Vienna's city council.
But at this event, there was no podium or stage, no bodyguards, and a meagre number of supporters -- none of whom wore face masks.
He declined to be interviewed by AFP, but has denied any accusations of wrongdoing, maintaining he is a victim of an internationally orchestrated smear campaign.
Strache has also previously railed against the press and hostility to the media was in evidence at the Oktoberfest event, with organisers threatening to call the police on journalists for conducting interviews.
While Strache garnered more than 30 percent of the vote in 2015, this time it is not even certain he will clear the 5 percent threshold to get on to Vienna's city council.
Even one of the women at the Oktoberfest event -- who didn't want to be named -- admitted: "I don't think he'll make it."
But immediately, the ever-loyal Bauer interjected: "He's a fighter -- of course he'll make it."
© 2020 AFP