Austria’s election has been widely characterized as yet another win for Europe’s populists. But this is a truth with some modification. The big winner of the election, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s likely new and Europe’s youngest head of government, did indeed borrow some of far-right policies and rhetoric But he also bears a certain resemblance to France’s Emmanuel Macron by rebranding the center-right People’s Party into a political “movement” and utilizing his youthfulness and charisma. Those looking for signs on where political populism in Europe is going should study the sources of Kurz’s success.
Having only assumed the leadership of the center-right People’s Party in May, Kurz managed to boost the party’s popular support by 14 points to 33 percent. Before his rise, the expectation was that the far-right Freedom Party would be the big winner in the election. The Freedom Party had, indeed, led in many polls since 2014. In this month’s election, however, the Freedom Party ended up third after the People’s Party and the Social Democrats with 26 percent.
Kurz managed to accomplish this by reshaping the image of his mainstream conservative People’s Party by promoting it as a “movement,” centered around his own personality, similar to Macron’s “En Marche!” in France. More importantly, he has selectively pushed the center-right People’s Party further to the right, specifically on issues like migration and political Islam, which dominate the Austrian political debate. Last but not least, he appealed to a large constituency with youthfulness, charisma and promotion of civic political debate. This should not be underestimated in a country that appreciates culture and etiquette, and where the public was recently shocked by a derogatory social media smear campaign targeting Kurz paid for by the Austrian Social Democrats.
Context is also crucial here. When it comes to the spread of populism and nationalism in Europe, Austria should be viewed as a special case. Compared to other European countries such as Germany, where right-wing populist parties have only recently gained serious political traction, the political field of nationalism in Austria has long been occupied by the far right-wing Freedom Party, which has been a part of the political landscape in Austria for decades and was also the first of its kind to enter a European government in 2000 as junior partner with the People’s Party. Back then, the reaction from the rest of Europe was strong with the European Union imposing sanctions on Austria for violating “common European values.”
Fast forward to modern day Austria, where the Freedom Party represents a stringent policy of national isolationism. It exploits people’s perceived fear of “foreign infiltration” and benefitted from the topic of “immigration” being the number one political issue in the public discourse over the course of the past two years since the refugee crisis unfolded. It was set out to win big. In Austria’s 2016 presidential election, it only closely lost to the Green Party candidate. For all the talk about the rise of the Freedom Party in this year’s election, it did not manage to beat its own record of 1999 when it gained just short of 27 percent of the vote.
Still, taken into account its strong performance and given Sebastian Kurz’s selective but deliberate move towards the right, the Freedom Party should be well positioned as a likely coalition candidate with Kurz’s People’s Party. That said, alternatives to such a right-wing coalition, such as a revamped grand coalition between the People’s Party and the Social Democrats, are not completely off the table yet.
The real impact of the election on the wider political environment in Austria and Europe will become clearer once Kurz decides on his coalition partner. The prospect of far-right Freedom Party politicians entering key political positions in the government could help turn Austria into a more Eurosceptic and anti-immigration country that aligns itself more closely with central European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, that are led by right-wing governments.
However, Kurz’s own instincts are broadly pro-European. That said, he wants to see a return to the European Union’s core competencies, including trade and border protection. He wants to focus on reforms aimed at downsizing the European Union’s bureaucratic structures and enhance its democratic legitimacy. Some of these suggestions could put him on collision course with France and Germany, the latter whom Kurz has criticized for acting “morally superior” and not listening to opinions from other countries. Kurz is also critical of European Union refugee quotas, favoring instead tougher external border security and off-site refugee detention centers.
When it comes to foreign policy, Kurz favors a less hardline approach towards Russia that involves more dialogue with Moscow and working towards easing the sanctions. As a non-NATO country with a history of neutrality, Austria tends typically to occupy a low-profile role within the transatlantic relationship. After Trump’s election, Kurz said that he viewed a potential reset of U.S.-Russia relations as positive. He also expressed support for Trump’s focus on immigration and counterterrorism. Still, he has also criticized Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran deal and opposed the U.S. Senate’s new Russia sanctions due to Austria’s business interests in the energy sector, especially when it comes to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline Russia wants to build in the Baltic Sea.
In sum, while the Austrian election represents a clear shift to the right, the far-right’s success was dampened by Sebastian Kurz’s ability to brand the country’s mainstream conservative party as a political “movement,” while also moving the party itself selectively more to the right. Whether this deliberate reshaping of a mainstream European party tells us something about how to address populism and the far-right more generally remains to be seen. Ultimately, the Austrian case is a unique one and may not be easily comparable to the political situations in other European states.