Austria in the Age of Kurz | Special Issue European Elections 2019

Austria under Chancellor Kurz is a politically divided nation between right-wind nationalism and pro-European forces

It is late January in Vienna, ball season. A tradition that dates back centuries, there is a ball for everything – universities, sports clubs, policemen, doctors, hunters, different regions, political parties. This particular Friday evening appears no different than the others: men in white-tie tuxedos leading women in elegant dresses to the Imperial Palace, ready to dance the waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr. Yet this particular ball is controversial: it is the Akademikerball of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a party founded by unrepentant Nazi party members in the 1950s and best known today for railing against refugees, migrants, and any type of multiculturalism that ‘threatens’ Austria. They are also the junior partner in the coalition government.
Merely one-hundred meters away from the Imperial Palace, along Vienna’s ring road, there is a protest against the Akademikerball. These protesters are juxtaposed to the ball-goers and grandiose buildings of central Vienna: they are young and multicultural. One can see signs that read signs that proclaim, ‘don’t let Nazis govern!’ and ‘resistance against racism, sexism and social destruction.’ Protestors are waving the blue flag of the European Union. In 2019, there are the two sides of Austria, one right next to the other.

In 2019, there are the two sides of Austria, one right next to the other: one is nationalistic, the other is multicultural

The two juxtaposing scenes are emblematic of the contradictions of the Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz. On one hand, he is young, cosmopolitan, and pro-European; on the other, he owes his chancellorship to co-opting the FPÖ’s messaging against migration by using the European refugee crisis to his advantage. He rose in the five years from inexperienced foreign minster to being one of the youngest heads of government in the world. His rise reflects the change in Austrian politics and its relationship to Europe since the last European elections. This is Austria in the age of Kurz.

The refugee crisis
The defining event of the past five years in Austria, and indeed throughout most of Europe, was the 2015 refugee crisis. Millions of refugees and migrants fleeing the conflicts of the Middle East came up through the ‘Balkan Route’ on the way to the most prosperous – and accepting – countries, Germany and Sweden. Thousands of migrants applied for asylum in Austria as well, and the country received the third highest number of asylum applications per capita in the EU, just behind Sweden and ahead of Germany. The crisis in the country was punctuated by a gruesome tragedy when 71 migrants were found dead in the back of a lorry, abandoned on the side of the road between Budapest and Vienna. As in Germany, there was sympathy at first, but as the crisis dragged on, public opinion sharply turned against accepting migrants or refugees. According to Eurobarometer, the proportion of Austrians reporting that they had ‘very negative’ feelings about immigration from outside the EU rose from 19 to 36 percent from November 2014 to November 2015. Eurobarometer also reported that the proportion of Austrians reporting that immigration was one of the top two problems of the country was an astonishing 56 percent.  This backlash would prove much greater than in Germany, and comparable to the backlash to migrants in neighboring Hungary.

2016 elections
This backlash was exploited by the FPÖ at the expense of the government led by the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ). The first nationwide election after the crisis was the Presidential election of 2016. Shockingly, the candidates of the two major parties who have ruled Austria since the Second World War, the SPÖ and Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) were eliminated in the first round of voting. Instead, the final round in May was contested between the FPÖ’s Nobert Hofer and independent candidate Alexander van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green Party. The election, the same year as the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election, pitted right-wing populism against pro-European cosmopolitanism. Van der Bellen appeared to win the run-off election, but only barely, defeating Hofer by a margin of 30,000 votes, 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent. A court overturned these results, citing faulty glue on some ballots, prompting a second election that December. Van der Bellen won this second run-off more handily by a margin of 53.4 to 46.6 percent – possibly because complacent Austrians were made aware that populist campaigns can actually succeed, as Brexit and Trump both happened in the months since the first run-off.

This was far from the end of the FPÖ’s surge. It seized the momentum from the continued backlash against migration for the parliamentary elections of October 2017

This was far from the end of the FPÖ’s surge. It seized the momentum from the continued backlash against migration for the parliamentary elections of October 2017, especially directing its attacks at the EU. While originally against Austrian entry into the EU in the 1990s and agitation from many party member for an exit from the Union, party leaders maintained that they were only European ‘critics’ against further deepening that would deprive Austria of its sovereignty. Yet they vigorously advanced the migration and identity issue, with campaign posters attacking refugees and attacking the ‘Islamization’ of the country, mostly blaming Brussels for doing this to their country. The strategy appeared to work, as the Freedom Party nearly surpassed the Social Democrats as the second largest party.

Austria under Kurz
That the far-right did not gain more was the result of another politician levying attacks against migration and the EU: Sebastian Kurz. After taking a hard line on migration as foreign minister under the SPÖ-led coalition government, Kurz took over as head of the ÖVP in May 2017, immediately leaving the government and calling for snap elections to seize the momentum that the FPÖ was already riding. Despite being young, only 31 years old, and from the left-wing capital, Vienna, Kurz swung to the right for the elections. Kurz’s campaign was focused on limiting immigration in response to the 2015 crisis, trying to prevent voters from choosing the Freedom Party. He also turned the campaign into a movement centered around his persona, even changing the party’s traditional black color to turquoise. Nearly every People’s Party campaign poster carried the likeness of Kurz. It appeared to have worked, as the People’s Party won the election.
Kurz’s rightward turn also set the stage for him to invite the FPÖ to form a coalition government as the junior partner. This was nearly unprecedented. Since 1955 only the ÖVP and SPÖ in coalition, or a few times ÖVP by itself, had ruled the country. The one time that the ÖVP attempted to invite the Freedom Party to form a government, in 2000, European-wide condemnation and the threat of sanctions forced the People’s Party to back down. But in 2017 Europe did not pay much notice – there was condemnation, surely, but the EU was concerned with greater dangers and feared provoking a further populist backlash.

Austria today
A year and a half on, how has the coalition ruled Austria? It has certainly not been the wrecking ball to EU politics that many feared, and Austria has not joined the ‘illiberal democracies’ of Central Europe in combatting Brussels. Indeed, there have been a number of times the coalition have irritated EU leaders, most of them centering around the actions of the Freedom Party. The FPÖ has raised concerns due to its admiration of Russia – it even has a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s political party – and this was accentuated when nominally independent but FPÖ-aligned foreign minister Karin Kneissl invited Putin to her wedding in 2018, which, to her apparent surprise, was accepted. The Freedom Party has also irritated other member states, such as when Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache suggested the possibility of giving Austrian passports to German-speaking residents of the Italian region of Alto Adige, known to Austrians as Südtirol. Rome did not receive this suggestion kindly. Kurz has also prodded Brussels during his Chancellorship, most notably pulling out of a UN migration pact during Austria’s presidency of the Council of the EU in 2018. He continues to be a fan of many on the right as someone who has successfully prevented conservative voters from turning to populist parties – he was even praised by the American ambassador to Germany as a ‘rockstar.’

The young chancellor is both Europhilic and Eurosceptic; not entirely for the current direction of the European Union, but not really against it either

And yet the coalition government under Kurz has tried to show that they are still ‘good Europeans.’ The presidency of the council was largely seen as competent, and the Chancellor himself is regarded as a constructive voice in the EU. In a sense, Austria under Kurz has returned to version of the country’s long-treasured neutrality, a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe. This embodied in a young Chancellor who has burst on the scene in the last five years. He is both Europhilic and Eurosceptic; not entirely for the current direction of the European Union, but not really against it either. He is against EU enlargement to Turkey but strongly encourages the accession of Serbia. He does not openly side with Hungary and Poland in their campaigns against Brussels but is still seen as a friend to those governments. Austria in the age of Kurz has thus returned to Central Europe, a neutral between right-wing nationalism and pro-Europeanism. Will there come a day when it has to choose?

Clicca qui per la versione italiana ► Gli equilibri dell'Austria