When Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann resigned this week, in the wake of a surge in popularity of the far-right Freedom party, many wondered if the country is a warning for Germany and perhaps even the rest of Europe.
Suddenly Austria stands for the all but unavoidable failure of grand coalitions, the name given to governments that bring together center-right and center-left parties, such as those currently in power in Austria and Germany. The assumption is that such a constellation inevitably leads to the right-wing populists on their fringes becoming stronger. It is true that there are several political parallels between Austria and Germany. But it would be wrong to say that if we avoid grand coalitions, right-wing populist parties like the Austrian Freedom Party, or FPÖ, and Alternative for Germany, or AfD, will disappear, and everything will be back to normal.
It is true that Germany, like Austria, is ruled by a grand coalition that seems to be exhausting itself. The economic situation is stable in both countries, but crises are coming from outside their borders. As in Austria, Germany’s center-right Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats are listlessly working through the last items of their coalition agreement, while the Alternative for Germany is becoming more and more vocal in attacking the system. But that’s where the similarities end.
In Austria, for example, the longstanding grand coalition is more a consequence than a cause of the growing strength of the Freedom Party. Part of the party system since 1955, it began its transformation in the 1980s, under then leader Jörg Haider, into a modern, right-wing populist party. Germany’s Alternative for Germany only arose as a consequence of the euro crisis. If the influx of refugees and migrants had begun six months later, the party would have fallen apart last fall following the withdrawal of founder Bernd Lucke and the party’s economic wing.