Austria’s election

Turning Hard Right in the Alps

Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz And Freedom Party Leader Heinz-Christian Strache Attend A Pre-Election TV Debate
Leaning rightwards. Source: Bloomberg

The series of European elections this year continued to keep observers on edge: After the Netherlands, France and Germany, it was Austria’s turn on October 15. For a nation of just eight million people, Austria has of late had an outsized impact on Europe and its policies towards refugees. The Alpine country, located at a critical juncture in central Europe, effectively forced an end to the 2015-2016 refugee crisis by closing its borders to refugees in coordination with several Balkan nations. This transformation from one of the most liberal refugee policies toward a hardline stance was confirmed in Sunday’s election – and prove a bellwether for all Europe.

That controversial border closing was led by a photogenic foreign minister who was barely 30 years of age at the time: Sebastian Kurz. On Sunday, this same Mr. Kurz, now 31, was likely elected Austria’s next chancellor and the youngest leader of the western world.

By party affiliation, Mr. Kurz is a center-right candidate, but by his rhetoric, he is a populist. Since May, he has been the leader of the Austrian People’s Party. With his ascendancy, he has rescued the ÖVP, which hails from the same tradition as Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, from the doldrums. The ÖVP won 31.4 percent of the vote in Austria’s parliamentary elections and became the country’s largest political party.

That will give Mr. Kurz the right to form the country’s next government. As a partner, he could choose the center-left Social Democrats, but these two centrist parties have already cooperated in government for 44 of the past 72 years. Their “grand coalition,” even more than the equivalent in Germany, is often blamed for turning ordinary Austrians off politics and sending them to the extremes.

So Mr. Kurz is more likely to pick the Freedom Party, which is Austria’s second-largest political force according to the preliminary results. The FPÖ, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, has a lot in common with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), although it has played a big role in Austria since the 1980s, whereas the AfD was only founded in 2013. Preliminary results put the FPÖ at 27.4 percent in Sunday’s poll, its best-ever result and putting them less than a percentage point ahead of the SPÖ.

NR-WAHL: START DER AUFBRUCH-TOUR DER ÖVP
A new face of Europe? Source: Picture alliance

Such an ÖVP-FPÖ government would mark the second time that Austria has been led by a coalition between the right and the far right. Between 2000 and 2006, an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition led by then-chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel was frozen out of diplomatic circles in the European Union. This time, with leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary or Beata Szydlo of Poland in much tenser confrontations with Brussels, Austria’s transformation is likely to pass more or less unnoticed.

Sebastian Kurz has already shifted the ground in Austria over the past few years. He’s done it in part by being a youthful change candidate in the style of France’s Emmanuel Macron but also by borrowing policies and even some of the language of the far right. On perhaps the most defining political issue of the day, immigration, Mr. Kurz has led his party away from what used to be the center and to the right.

As a nation bordering Germany, eastern Europe and the Balkan states, Austria found itself at the center of the 2015-2016 refugee crisis. When Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel first spoke of an unassailable right for asylum seekers to come to Europe, Austria initially followed suit and kept its borders open. But within a year, as refugee numbers grew and the local populace became anxious, Foreign Minister Kurz took a unilateral decision to close his country’s borders. This shut off the Balkan route on which refugees had been walking into Europe. In effect, that move, coordinated with the Balkan states (but not with Ms. Merkel or Greece, both of whom were furious), ended the refugee crisis by forcing Ms. Merkel and EU leaders to agree an aid deal with Turkey to stop more refugees from coming in.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz speaks to the media at the Greek-Macedonian border line, near Gevgelija
Taking a hard line. Source: Reuters

Since then, Austria has continued to steer a hardline course, even though Mr. Kurz’s party has been only the junior partner in a Grand Coalition with the center-left Social Democrats, or SPÖ, led by Chancellor Christian Kern. Earlier this year, Austria sent troops to its Italian border to prevent migrants from crossing the hills into Austria. And this month, Austria implemented a ban on burqas, though they are not exactly a common sight in Austria.

Mr. Kurz couches his populist policies in a centrist tradition. He has argued that only by closing the EU’s internal borders now can he force the kind of drastic changes at the European level that will allow them to be opened again in the future. That tough-love approach is part of what has won him votes at home but alienated erstwhile Austrian allies, including Germany’s Ms. Merkel.

Mr. Kern’s Social Democrats, though now the third largest party in the country, surprised observers by holding their own in Sunday’s elections, despite an internal scandal over negative campaigning that had threatened their standing. Still, Mr. Kern has long acknowledged the shifting realities, and even kept open the possibility of entering a coalition with the far-right FPÖ. In a recent interview, he insisted there has been a “narrowing” of differences between right and left approaches to immigration. All now seem to agree on the need to control borders.

That subtlety may have helped Mr. Kern hold some votes. Mathematically, the SPÖ’s stronger-than-expected showing means it could enter into a governing coalition with the FPÖ if talks with Mr. Kurz fail. Still, it is the youthful Mr. Kurz with his straight talk who seems all but certain to take power. Like Mr. Macron, he promises a fresh start in many ways – he has even changed his party’s color from black to turquoise. Unlike Mr. Macron, he will try to point Europe rightward.

16 p12 Austrian Parliamentary Elections-01

Christopher Cermak is a citizen of both Austria and America, and an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: cermak@handelsblatt.com

This story, originally published Friday, was updated Monday with preliminary results from Sunday’s Austrian election.

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