Paul Hockenos: After a vote that devastated Austria's left, the shift rightward has worrying implications for the rest of Europe
The rise of populist extremists has plunged the EU into an existential crisis, he writes
Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is the author of “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” This article has been updated to reflect most accurate election results. The opinion in this article belong to the author.
The commanding victory of populist parties in Austria’s national election on Sunday is certain to reverberate beyond the borders of the nation of 8.5 million. Coming on the heels of record gains made by the far right in Germany last month, nationalist and anti-immigrant forces across the European Union are feeling emboldened by the vote, which could well bring Austria’s Islamophobic Freedom Party to power in a coalition government in Vienna.
The conservative People’s Party, led by 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, captured 31.5% of the vote, while the Freedom Party took 26%. In one of the shrillest, most racially inflected campaigns in the county’s recent history, the ruling Socialist Party of Austria dropped to 26.9%.
At the very least, the outcome portends conservative-led government for the first time in a decade. (The Socialist Party had led a coalition with the People’s Party since 2007.) Kurz made his name as Austria’s foreign minister who closed routes through the Balkans for immigrants into Austria; his party spearheaded laws that recently banned full-face Muslim veils in public spaces. Unlike Angela Merkel of Germany – also a conservative – who refused to bow to the far right’s baiting, Kurz promised Austrians that he will further curb immigration, limit benefit payments to refugees and block newcomers from receiving social assistance until they have lived in the country for five years.
Should the People’s Party take the far-right Freedom Party as coalition partner, it would constitute a seismic shift in Austrian politics with severe implications for the rest of Europe. The two parties vied to outdo each other on issues touching migration, pushing the campaign and its tenor sharply to the right.
The Freedom Party, which was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis, regularly underscored the threat of Islam to Austria. The difference between it and the People’s Party is one of degrees: While Kurz’s People’s Party wants to fine migrants who refuse to attend integration and language classes, the Freedom Party calls for dropping such classes completely. The Freedom Party pledged to deny migrants access to welfare payments altogether.
A rightist government would not in itself be novel in Austria: from 2000 to 2006, the two parties governed in a coalition buffeted by fierce criticisms from the EU and Israel that the Freedom Party was extremist.
Yet today, nearly two decades later, Europe’s far right as a whole is a much more muscular, established force than in the early aughts. The rise of populist extremists has plunged the EU into an existential crisis, magnified by Brexit. In Italy, Denmark and Greece, too, the far right has – officially or tacitly – shared in power on the national level; today a growing number of the parties in the EU parliament are far-right nationalists of different stripes.
Austria’s lurch to the right flies in the face of a hopeful, short-lived apparent backlash against the far right’s advances in Europe. In French and Dutch votes, nationalists fell short of expectations. In Austria itself last year, a liberal candidate narrowly beat the Freedom Party’s frontman for the country’s presidency.
But these victories now appear as interim events.
Austria’s swing to the right is particularly worrisome in light of its Central European neighbors’ rightward tilts and their opposition to the kind of liberal, more tightly integrated EU envisioned by Merkel and Emmanuel Macron of France.
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If a conservative-far right government emerges in Austria, which is likely but not certain, the coalition would certainly breathe wind into the sails of the post-communist nations such as Poland, Hungary, Croatia and others that, in general, bristle under Brussels’ curbs on state sovereignty and, specifically, the imperative to accept and integrate refugees. Austria would find itself closer in its affinities to Victor Orban’s Hungary than to Merkel’s Germany.
Austria was an outlier in 2000, brushing aside criticism to take the Freedom Party into the government. Kurz would be going a step further if he resurrects the alliance today. Europe’s identity and the EU’s survival are on the line, something even the young Mr. Kurz must certainly understand.