Austria’s 2017 Elections: An Unshocking Far Right Turn?

BY BASANTI MARDEMOOTOO

Sebastian Kurz waves to crowd. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters).

 

Twenty years ago, the consequences of elections similar to the current Austrian elections would have launched Europe into a regional frenzy. The chaos of neighboring countries revoking support, foreign leaders removing diplomats, and states implementing economic sanctions is one of the past. The events of 2000 marked the debut of a complicated series of events for Austria when they became home to the first far-right party in Europe to join a government since WWII. Despite the consequences, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) today has another chance to make its mark – this time, without repercussions. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s new, 31 year old Chancellor, was elected  in early October and assumed his role as  head of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), a center-right party. Despite Kurz’s election meriting concern from the international scene, it does not come as a surprise. The ÖVP came out of the race winning the most votes, but not enough to for a parliamentary majority. The search for a coalition partner is on the Kurz agenda, and the political discourse of this issue makes for an interesting case. There are two main factors of the election that capture our attention: the manner in which Kurz came out as a victor, and the election’s influence on the development of coalition talks. This article will analyze these two factors in hopes of obtaining a deeper understanding of Austria’s current political situation.

With the influx of refugees from the Middle East due to the outbreak of violent civil wars and the after effects of the Arab Spring of 2011, as well as, various other inter-related events in Europe becoming more pronounced such as terrorist attacks in major European capitals, a wave of far-right ideology started making its way through the various political strongholds of the continent. The reasoning behind this ideology stems from an overwhelming sense of nationalism being needed to secure one’s borders from potential threats that are connected Muslim fundamentalism. Austria, the most recent example of the presence of far-right movements, reminds us that this wave is strong and increasingly popular. The growth of anti-immigration, nationalist sentiment brings forth a question that cannot be dismissed: Did Kurz’s leanings actually fall further right than usual, or was this a political stunt to appeal to the masses for a win? It is not uncommon for a politician to capitalize on public fears of Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism. It is also undeniable that one of the main reasons behind the overwhelming support for the ÖVP stems from the drastic changes that were made to the party’s structure and ideological leaning similar to Macron’s method in France, whereby important party and organizational mechanisms were altered to capitalize on votes. The ÖVP’s initial pro-capitalist/anti-welfare agenda became one of anti-migration and islamophobic tendencies that mimicked the policies of the Freedom Party of Austria. These similarities present the potential for a coalition, one that will mostly likely play out over the next few weeks. The two parties have a complicated history, but a coalition would not be uncharted territory:  a coalition existed 17 years prior. With the  far-right wave crossing partisan lines, the fear of this election comes in the form of parliament powers. The overlap between the Freedom Party and the ÖVP mainly concerns immigration. Recently, the parties announced they would also focus on “reducing inefficiencies in state spending”. However, it is important not to dismiss the possibility of other coalitions.  The relationship between the OVP and the SPO has been ongoing since 2006, and could make for another potential coalition. The possibility of this coalition banks on Kurz’s strong relationship with SPÖ since he played an important role as the foreign minister in their coalition up until this recent election.

It is rather easy to categorize Austria as just another country affected by the spread of the European far-right mentality, but the situation here is slightly different. This difference comes in the form populism. Unlike European powers such as Germany, where far-right parties substantially increased in popularity after the 2015 migration crisis, Austrian political parties have a longer history of populist tendencies. The Freedom Party has been part of the political scene since 2000, after it won a considerable amount of votes in the 1999 election cycle. In recent years, the party has taken steps to reshape their policy preferences – especially after facing a number of controversies like the imposition of sanctions on Austria by the EU due to existence of the FPÖ. Today, the FPÖ focuses more on the adoption a policy of national isolationism where issues of migration takes the front seat. This move has made the party very popular in the recent years, with the Freedom Party bringing in the third largest number of votes in this last election cycle. Kurz is not interested in shying away from formal talks with the Freedom Party for these very reasons, but this makes Austria a rather unique case in the European far-right domino effect. EU countries have a political tendency to restrict the uprising of populist movements by shutting down coalition talks and distancing themselves from parties on the fringes of the ideological spectrum. A key example of this can be found during the last French elections where the majority of French parties strategically supported Macron’s candidacy to ensure victory against Le Pen. With this said, Kurz’s platform does not stray from a “pro-European” background, which makes it unlikely that the EU will take action against Austria.

In the end, the real impact the Austrian elections will come down to who is selected as the coalition partner. If Kurz ends up leaning on the Freedom Party, legislative change regarding volatile political issues like unemployment and migration are likely to happen. With the majority on their side, the far-right coalition will have the necessary support to implement rather radical measures against the movement of peoples tied to the Middle East or Muslim fundamentalism. That would result in the initiation of a series of parliamentary actions to reverse the norm established by previous governments. Furthermore, we will see growing ties to Eastern European states, such as Hungary, which are currently controlled by ring-wing governments. This has been in significant topic in the press, and has been mentioned by both Kurz and the FPÖ have in televised debates. The praise for Viktor Orban, Hungary’s current Prime Minister, extends far beyond the immediate ties that are likely to be made between the two countries. This attests to a possible shift in Austrian attitudes towards the Russian government given Hungarian-Russian tis,  whereby similarities political stances could. If Kurz decides to create a coalition with the SPÖ, things could be completely different and the country could find itself focusing on different issues altogether. This option would mean giving in to the status quo regarding possible reforms made to the EU. Given that the last government in power was an SPÖ-ÖVP coalition, the political agenda is not likely to undergo massive changes.

Their fate has yet to be known.

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