Team Stronach offers a frank alternative to Austrian body politic
Support for his team is dipping, but all eyes are on Frank Stronach as Austria goes to the polls on Sunday
Frank Stronach: his party has declared war on “the system”.
The ballroom chandeliers dim, a man in lederhosen bounces onstage and launches into a frenetic, Falco-inspired rap with an English-language refrain: “Thank you, Frank.” All eyes are on the 81-year-old Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach and his eponymous “Team Stronach” party, the political newcomer in Sunday’s general election in Austria.
Founded a year ago, the party has declared war on what it calls “the system”: a corrupt cartel of Austrian banks, companies and unions that Stronach says run Austria for their own ends. Assisting, he says, is the left-right grand coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) that has governed Austria for most of its postwar history.
Financier and figurehead of his anti-establishment, anti-corruption crusade, Stronach left Austria in 1954 for Canada to found the auto-parts giant Magna, employing 120,000 people worldwide. Though not a candidate, all Team Stronach election materials urge Austrians to “Vote for Frank” on Sunday. The programme he devised promises tax cuts, debt reduction, a pruning of public administration and a two-term limit on politicians serving as MPs.
Outspoken EU critic
“Most of them just have their snouts in the trough,” says Stronach to The Irish Times at the party rally in St Polten, west of Vienna. “Our aim is to get a few seats in parliament and to keep hammering away.” After regional election wins, the party’s main aim is to hinder a return of the outgoing SPÖ-ÖVP alliance in the Vienna parliament, shattering Austria’s default grand coalition mode.
Stronach is an outspoken EU critic too, attacking bailouts and calling for the end of the single currency, a demand he has softened in the campaign in favour of a system of variable exchange or parallel currencies.
“What annoys Frank is Austria’s own debts, and the ones we signed up for with the ESM bailout fund,” said Gerald Zelina, a Team Stronach MP who won a seat in Vienna’s parliament through regional elections. Zelina says Team Stronach is neither xenophobic nor comparable with other euro crisis protest movements.
The octogenarian has injected some colour into an otherwise routine election campaign, giving an interview shirtless and saying he had no reason to be ashamed of his body. That prompted Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) – and half Stronach’s age – to post online a snapshot of his oiled torso in swimming trunks. The hasty response spoke for itself. Once breathing down the neck of the ruling parties in polls, Team Stronach has poached much of the FPÖ’s populist, protest vote.
Passion for horses
Besides business and politics, Stronach’s passion is horses. He visited Ireland last year to see show-jumper Cian O’Connor, buy his horse Blue Loyd, and hire O’Connor as trainer for his granddaughter Nicky. “He’s straight up, what you see is what you get and there’s no bulls**t,” says O’Connor in a telephone interview. “For someone so successful it’s remarkable how in touch he is with reality.”
That’s a verdict shared by his supporters back in St Pölten. “If I had a billion euro I’d probably want to lie on a beach with ladies, but not Frank – he wants to give something back to Austria,” says Martin Piribauer (34). The ballroom lights dim again and supporters watch a brief documentary on Stronach’s life, with contributions from Larry King and Bill Clinton. “You’ve created so many jobs and enriched society, I’m proud of our friendship,” says the former US president.
Then Stronach takes to the stage for a mild-mannered, free-wheeling address. He is an independent thinker, he says, with nothing to prove and a deep-felt desire to free his homeland from debt-driven politics pushed by career politicians.
Team Stronach was once confident of a two-digit result, but latest polls put it on 7 per cent and sinking. While the ruling SPÖ has warned against “billionaire rule”, others have criticised Team Stronach’s considerable election spend of at least €4 million– a third of the total.
Then came Stronach’s erratic television performances – attacking opponents, hosts and, once, the studio audience. And, then, an interview in which he seemed to support the death penalty for contract killers.
The other side of Stronach’s mild-mannered personality flashes through as he exits the St Pölten hotel ballroom. He signs autographs and smiles patiently for countless photographs. Then, from nowhere, he lashes out at a young reporter from state broadcaster ORF, which he believes is waging a campaign against him.
“People who support the system are part of the corruption,” he snaps at her as his handlers smile meekly. Austrian voters have the choice on Sunday between “the system” and the Stronach system: Frank by name, Frank by nature.
* This article was amended on September 30th, 2013, to correct a factual error.