You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Do Populists Frequently Get Away With Corruption?

A case study from Europe, with lessons for the United States.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When the European Parliament noticed earlier this year that its self-appointed critics, the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group, had claimed reimbursements for 427,000 euros’ worth of champagne, Christmas gifts and fancy dinners, ENF member of parliament Harald Vilimsky immediately took to Twitter to insist that he does not like champagne and has never drunk it.

On cue, a photograph appeared of the Austrian Vilimsky and Marine le Pen raising champagne flutes at a “Patriotic Spring” gathering in Vienna. The two blondes became the latest welfare-cutting populists to get caught engaging in activities that hardly say “everyman.“ The poor optics prompted reliable sources from Vilimsky’s Austrian Freedom Party at home to declare their buddy, an ex-frat boy forever trying (and failing) to get a meeting with the next boss figure on the populist international scene, a noted beer drinker. While Vilimsky himself seemed fussed by the episode, it illustrated an interesting general principle: Right now, scandals involving populists’ apparent hypocrisy do not seem to have much of an effect on their public appeal.

Like other far-right populist parties who get elected by slamming “the fat cats” who are “up there,” (phrases from the party’s former leader) Vilimsky and his colleagues like to style themselves as relatable underdogs. This hasn’t stopped them from filling their pockets before, when they ruled together with the conservative party in the early aughts. Right now, the former FPÖ finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser is on trial in Vienna for embezzling millions of euros back when he oversaw the privatization of 60,000 federal apartments. The investigation took eight years. Grasser’s wife, a Swarovski heiress, has insisted that her husband is innocent and is being hounded like Marilyn Monroe—“first praised, then destroyed.”

And still, the revamped Freedom Party entered Austria’s government as junior coalition partner again last year, with a bunch of new ministers—many of whom were brought to politics by the country’s small clique of right-wing extremists and torch-bearing fraternities. Even the party’s voters know that these men aren’t great statesmen. (Vilimsky once tasered himself half-unconscious on national television to try to make a case that taser-pistols should be legalized.)  

But they don’t have to be. For their appeal hinges in large part on the powerful effect of fear and identity-driven politics. In a country where immigration has been the non-stop number-one topic since 2015, vice-chancellor and FPÖ leader Hans-Christian Strache has rallied his base with fears of “Islamization” and “exploding costs.” The party is strongest in areas where there are no Muslim immigrants, like in Vienna’s flagship social housing projects. Here, a one security guard told the editor of the Austrian weekly magazine Falter, Florian Klenk, that locals voted for the Freedom Party because they didn’t want “people in burkinis” jumping into their rooftop swimming pool.

Right now, Austria’s new government is planning to cut benefits. Immigrants who don’t speak German will be affected. Children from low-income families, which the Freedom Party claims to represent, will also be affected. And the left-leaning newspaper columnist Hans Rauscher is only half joking when he says that the FPÖ’s working class voters might even be willing to tolerate a certain level of self-serving greediness by Austria’s biggest racists, “as long as the foreigners are being treated badly.”

The pattern playing out in Austria has gone a whole lot further in neighboring Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, criticized by observers for authoritarian tendencies and corruption, is in fact quite popular with Austria’s Freedom Party. Before Orban turned full-time to anti-immigration conspiracies in 2015, many Hungarians were getting sick of the newfound flashy lifestyles of the ministers in Orban’s Fidesz party. Now, according to Andras Lanczi, a long-time advisor of Viktor Orban and President of the Fidesz think tank Századvég, “if something is done in the national interest, then it is not corruption.”

In this year’s “free but not fair” elections, Fidesz won its third super-majority victory. There is still plenty of reporting about Fidesz’s shady deals online. But one reason the opposition didn’t have a chance, according to Attila Vajnai, a veteran activist who leads the Hungarian Workers Party 2006, is because “people don’t think positively of the other parties either.” Vajnai believes that this can change, if just one of Orban’s ministers would be prosecuted for fraud. (A former Fidesz member leads the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, which is known to drop cases tied to Fidesz politicians.) “We need the first domino,” Vajnai says. “The majority has a feeling that Fidesz is untouchable. But after the first victory, Fidesz’s ratings can fall.”

Back in Austria, where people have been wary about crooks in the establishment for a long time, the FPÖ’s corruption (and empty rhetoric) has exacerbated, according to Rauscher, the population’s “general moroseness” about all political parties. A recent survey by the Austrian polling group SORA found that 26 percent of people like the idea of a “strong leader” who “doesn’t have to deal with a parliament or elections.“

But there is also ground for hope: In the Alpine state of Carinthia, the Freedom Party has recovered some of its popularity since driving the place to the knife-edge of bankruptcy in 2015—but not as much as it’s ministers would hope for in a place where, according to the regional anthem, “the border was written in blood.” They especially don’t like it that local newspapers are talking about the ongoing cases against the cronies of the state’s former governor and Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider, who died in a car crash a decade ago.

In the years that followed Haider’s death, fresh candles were lit up at the memorial for the self-described “Nazi child,” who is said to have shaken every Carinthian’s hand at least once. FPÖ voters didn’t just cynically indulge Haider as they are now doing with Vilimsky. Haider would show up to any shop opening to give a speech, sing homecoming songs with the men’s choir and hand out 100 euro bills to mothers and pensioners. After his death, it became clear that he had also used the state bank as his personal wallet. But people continued to bring candles for the “The King of Carinthians’ Hearts,” who had made them feel strong by proposing that sick and elderly asylum seekers be sent to a “special camp” on a remote alpine pasture.

For entirely selfish reasons, it is tough to accept that someone you once loved was playing you all along. And no one likes to admit in public that they have been identity-conned.

But as Haider’s four former FPÖ party members were found guilty of embezzlement in the regional court last year, the candles started to dwindle in number. And at this year’s anniversary for Carinthia’s capital city, the novelist Josef Winkler suggested that Haider’s urn be locked into a prison cell too, because “maybe he will rise like a phoenix out of his own ashes and repeat his dirty deeds.” The FPÖ was horrified. They accused Winkler of being a “left-wing hate preacher.“ But Winkler says he is glad he spoke out. “They want grass to grow over the thing,” he says. “But we have to keep talking about it.”

When general trust in institutions and politicians is low, a self-styled status-quo buster’s expensive wristwatch or champagne bill does not necessarily do lasting damage—particularly if voters can be convinced that the real enemy is a handful of women wearing the niqab. To the FPÖ’s chagrin, however, it seems a full a corruption trial still holds power. At a moment when populists with questionable business ties are proliferating across Western nations, the case study may resonate far beyond Austria.