AUSTRIA’S general election campaign is heating up, and two high-profile contenders have engaged in an unseemly rivalry by stripping to the waist.
Apparently emulating the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who frequently poses for publicity shots minus his shirt, the macho displays in Austria are the latest ploy in the electoral rivalry between populist candidate Frank Stronach and Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic Freedom Party.
The two are both seeking to capture the protest vote in Austria’s 29 September election.
Austria is unused to such tactics, tending towards conservatism even when it comes to political debate.
Mr Stronach was the first to remove his shirt, stripping to his jeans and grinning as he displayed a trim, though 80-year-old torso, as he stood next to his private lake during weekend interviews with Austrian daily newspapers.
“I don’t need to be ashamed of my body,” the Austro-Canadian billionaire explained. Mr Strache responded immediately. A photo of the tanned 42-year-old clad in swimming trunks appeared on Sunday on his Facebook page, with the caption “top fit in the election campaign!”
The bare-chest battle went into round two on Monday, with Austria’s major newspapers carrying both photos – alongside articles debating whether such displays constituted below-the-belt campaigning.
Commenting on the “naked duel”, the tabloid Oesterreich praised Mr Stronach for “showing the new self-confidence of the 60-plus generation. In politics. In fitness. In looks.” At the same time, it warned that Mr Strache’s decision to challenge Mr Stronach’s gambit “with his fitness-centre muscles” now risks turning the campaign into a circus.
The rivalry started when Mr Stronach founded his “Team Stronach” organisation last year.
It aims for the same voters that Mr Strache’s Freedom Party views as its own – Austrians disenchanted with both the conservative People’s Party and the Socialists, parties that now form the government coalition. While differing on some issues, both Mr Stronach’s and Mr Strache’s parties are campaigning on the need for change.
Mr Strache’s party regularly polled third with support close to 30 per cent before the billionaire entered the fray, but the Freedom Party leader now says he will be happy with 20 per cent of the vote next month.
Experts are still debating on whether baring their torsos will help or hurt the two men, but Austria’s other parties are keeping a watching brief.
Andreas Schieder, a leading socialist, urged both men to focus on the politics of “bare facts, instead of bare upper bodies”.