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The new Austrian government will brand itself as moderate – but don’t believe it

Posted by hkarner - 4. Oktober 2019

Date: 02-10-2019
Source: The Guardian by Cas Mudde

Sebastian Kurz may change the drift of his party and government, and rebrand them as ‘centrist’, but it mainly illustrates how rightwing the Austrian and European center have become

Sebastian Kurz, the head of Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) addresses the audience on stage during the party’s electoral evening in Vienna, on 29 September.

The Austrian parliament is in disarray. After a scandal within the populist radical right Freedom party (FPÖ), the FPÖ’s coalition government with the conservative People’s party collapsed. New elections were held, which led to a mass exodus of Freedom party voters to the People’s party (ÖVP).

When the Freedom party first entered the government in 2000, other EU member states confronted Austria with a boycott. That feels like a long time ago; when the Freedom party returned in 2017, radical right parties were in government in Hungary and Poland, and radical right policies were no longer at the fringes of European politics.Similarly, in Austria, politics have moved on. In 2016, the Freedom party candidate Norbert Hofer, now the party leader, almost won the presidency, drawing significant support from People’s party supporters in the second round of the elections. And the People’s party is no longer the mainstream conservative party of Wolfgang Schüssel, who had to fight off significant internal opposition to his coalition with the Freedom party. Today’s “new people’s party” is the personal vehicle of Sebastian Kurz.

At just 33 years old, Kurz, the almighty leader of the conservative People’s party, has achieved what almost all politicians aspire to: he is central to Austrian politics. With a monster score of roughly 37% of the vote, an increase of almost 6%, Kurz is certain to return as prime minister. The only remaining question is: with whom?

Kurz has the Qual der Wahl (agony of choice), given that an unprecedented number of coalition options are possible. Strengthened by an extremely strong (personal) mandate, he can play the social democratic party against the populist radical right Freedom party, which both suffered painful losses. And this still leaves him fallback options of a coalition with the Greens, the biggest winners, and even a minority government.

Many pundits are already writing off a new ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, pointing to opposition within both the conservative and the populist radical right party. But at this point, this seems the most likely coalition. First, Kurz is ideologically closest to the FPÖ and can now govern with them on his own terms. Second, the vast majority of both ÖVP and particularly FPÖ voters were “very or rather” satisfied with the previous Kurz government. This will make it very hard for FPÖ leaders to reject a decent offer by Kurz.

And Kurz can easily ignore any remaining internal dissenters. The Austrian political Wunderkind (miracle child) has personally revived the faltering party, bringing them back from a low of 24% in 2013 to 37% six years later. In 2017 more than half of ÖVP voters (54%) named Kurz as one of the main reason for their vote. And despite the fall of his coalition government, Kurz was still the most important reason for the electoral victory this Sunday – almost one third of ÖVP voters named him.

This is not to say that there won’t be some cosmetic changes. Some FPÖ hardliners will be sacrificed, notably former FPÖ leader and Deputy Chancellor “HC” Strache (who was at the heart of the Ibizagate scandal) and former Minister of Interior Herbert Kickl, involved in a range of corruption and political scandals. New FPÖ leader Hofer will probably stay in parliament, so as not to become politically compromised by an ÖVP-dominated government, and use the time to rebuild the party after yet another scandalous period.

Whatever the outcome of the coalition negotiations, Kurz will brand his new government, and himself, as more centrist, rather than as the bridge between the mainstream right and radical right, as he did in 2017. There will be fewer photo-ops with Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán, and more visits to Berlin and Brussels, as he reassesses the “European mood”.

But this does not mean that Kurz has actually moderated. Even in this campaign, as arrivals of asylum seekers to Europe have plummeted and immigration no longer dominates the concerns of Europeans, Kurz stated: “People often come up to me at events and say they don’t feel at home in their own neighborhood. They almost feel foreign where they live … We must keep fighting illegal immigration.”

Kurz may change the tactical course of his party and government, and rebrand them as “centrist”, but it mainly illustrates how rightwing the Austrian and European center have become. In this way, Kurz remains the perfect bellwether for European politics.

Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. His latest book is The Far Right Today

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