On October 15 the Austrian Conservative party (Ovp) won the Austrian legislative elections. The Ovp obtained 31 percent of the popular vote. The Social Democratic party (Spo) and the Freedom party (Fpo) scored 26,9 and 26 percent, de-facto sharing the second place.
According to many analysts, much of the success of the Ovp is linked to the charisma of its 31-year old leader, Sebastian Kurz. Earlier this year, as the Ovp broke the coalition agreement with the Spo, Kurz was able to swiftly grab the power within the party and drive the traditional centre-right wing party towards a stunning electoral victory.
However, across Europe, the Austrian elections made the headlines even because of the “success” of the radical right wing and populist Freedom party.
The Fpo is considered similar to other European forces that obtained strong results across the Old Continent over the past year, such as the Dutch Freedom party (Pvv) led by Geert Wilders, the Alternative for Germany (Afd) or the French Front National (Fn) of Marine Le Pen.
Yet, the Fpo obtained the biggest share of the national popular vote if compared to other right-wing populist parties in Europe. All the more important, only in Austria the radical-right wing party is understood to be a potential coalition partner within a Government lead by moderate political forces, such as the Ovp.
In the aftermath of the election results, the leader of the Spo and outgoing Chancellor, Christian Kern, blamed the media and the political tone set by Kurz during the electoral campaign for the strong result of the Fpo.
But what does Kurz’s victory mean for Europe? And what does the success of the Fpo imply for the Eu integration process?
The results of the Austrian elections: a European debate
On the German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Stefan Kornelius argues that electoral results in Austria have often proven to be a warning sign for broader tendencies across Europe. The editorialist blasts Sebastian Kurz’s rhetoric, which in the eyes of the German editorialist, was built upon catchy slogans, such as: “We need a new style”. The latter wording represents nothing but the latest shape of the “Zeitgeist” that is tearing Europe apart, namely the one of populist politics.
A similar point of view can be found on Euractiv, where Evgeny Pudovkin argues that most analysts were wrong in judging eurosceptics forces on a downward path after the results in France and the Netherlands, earlier this year. On the contrary, the German and the Austrian elections highlighted once more that far-right movements are able to draw upon the failure of recent policies set by mainstream parties. Pudovkin points to the migration-integration conundrum, and, more specifically, to the fact that national institutions have not been able to properly manage the migratory crisis over the past few years. However, the author takes a clear stance in favour of Eu institutions. Responsibility for the failed approach lies first and foremost in the hands of national governments.
On The Telegraph, Daniel Johnson argues that the migratory “open door policies” set in place by former centre-left governments have triggered the success of populist and institutional right-wing parties. Kurz was simply the best in understanding the fears of the Austrian population. Johnson writes that Austria felt “boxed in” by the mindset of European institutions. In the eyes of the analyst, what is needed is simply a stricter immigration policy.
According to Anton Pelinka the success of the Ovp was built upon the powerful figure of Kurz, on the one hand, and the recycling of typically far-right policies, on the other one. Although Kurz argues to have renewed the Ovp party, the latter claim is simply not true. Yet, in a Eu whose political identity is shaped by figures such as Merkel, Macron and Juncker, a right-wing Austrian Government would not be seen favourably and would most likely encounter strong resistance.
Nevertheless, and quite paradoxically, the Austrian vote adds another country to the list of those who think that “Europe’s problems need to be tackled from a more sharply nationalistic standpoint”, the editorial board of The Guardian writes. Likewise, the prospects for a reform of the Eu in line with the one outlined recently by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, look pretty doomed after Sunday. After establishing a bold parallel between the Catalan crisis and the Austrian vote, the authors claim that “populist ferment in Europe takes different forms, but is far from dead”.
Across the Atlantic, the editorial board of The New York Times writes: “Austria’s Nazi past raises its head”. The authors blast both Sebastian Kurz’s electoral campaign and the political views of the right-wing Fpo party. The New York-based newspaper recalls that leader of the Fpo, Heinz-Christian Strache, was invited to Donald Trump’s election-night party in November 2016. Consequently, Kurz is called to form a Government with other minor parties or to establish a new Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats of Christian Kern.
On the left-wing British newspaper, NewStatesman, Liam McLaughlin argues that the “Kurz moment” has come. The youngest Head of State in the Western world needs to make a choice that will affect “all of Europe”: establishing a Government with a radical right-wing party the members of which were affiliated to nazi-movements in the past, or form a new coalition with the Spo. With hindsight, McLaughlin argues that Kurz’s strategy of “personalising the Ovp” while being potentially open to working with the Fpo could prove disastrous for his political career, Austria and Europe.
Likewise, an editorial piece published by The Times warns about the risks of a coalition with the far-right. Kurz should instead server Europe’s interest by pointing centre-left. A Grand Coalition with the Spo is seen as the only option that could help the Eu in facing long-lasting and pressing issues, such as sluggish growth and the migrant crisis.
A more nuanced view can be found on Open Europe, where Leopold Traugott argues that, although drifting right, Austria remains committed to the Eu. Traugott writes that Kurz has stressed more than once the country’s commitment to the Union. Yet, the analyst of the British think tank underlines that the leader of the Ovp called for Brussels to abide by the principle of subsidiarity.
Photo Credits CC Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äußeres
Also published on Medium.