Austria: The Successful Populist

Following the election victory of Sebastian Kurz, some are wondering if the Austrian model could be copied across the border in Germany. Kurz’s admirers might want to consider the dangers involved following such a model.

Kaiserlich und königlich (‘imperial and royal’) was a well-known term in Austria in the times of the Habsburg Empire. The simple abbreviation ‘K.u.K.’ referred to a complex system of power in an attempt to balance out the interests of its various nations, which the Austrian Habsburgs ruled for centuries. Franz Joseph I featured as emperor of Austria and king of Hungary.

With this historical perspective in mind, the Austrian weekly Falter called the possible dawn of a new era in Austria a ‘K.u.K. coalition’. For the Austrian election of 29 September produced two winners: the 33-year old Wunderkind and leader of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), Sebastian Kurz; and the leader of the Green Party, Werner Kogler. The far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the Social Democratic Party of Austria  (SPÖ) lost. A coalition between Kurz and Kogler would follow the will of voters, but it would be quite difficult to find a balance between the different interests and ideologies. Kurz might therefore turn back to his old coalition partner, the far-right FPÖ.

The youngest prime minister in Austria’s history is already an Altkanzler, a former prime minister. The law student – he never finished his degree – is considered one of the biggest political talents currently operating in Europe. Kurz was serving as foreign minister in a conservative–social democratic ÖVP–SPÖ coalition when he took over his party, ending the grand coalition and calling for a new election. He won those with his remodelled Liste Sebastian Kurz–ÖVP displaying a fair amount of populist anti-immigration rhetoric. As junior minister for integration and foreign minister he had studied the complexities of immigration policies, but in an attempt to grab voters from the far-right FPÖ he focused on one message only: closing Austria’s borders.

Kurz subsequently entered a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party FPÖ. He has stated that he felt very comfortable in this coalition, which has puzzled those who care to remember that the party was founded by former Nazis, a legacy that some members still maintain today. The coalition imploded after a video emerged in which Heinz-Christian Strache, the then leader of the FPÖ, casually promised, at a secretive meeting in the Spanish resort of Ibiza, to sell parts of Austria’s assets to the what was presented as the niece of a supposed Russian oligarch. Big state contracts in the construction businesses, maybe the privatisation of Austria’s water and shares in the biggest tabloid were not obstacles for Strache in order to gain influence. The video of the encounter during which Strache made these promises was a set-up, but the episode exposed the FPÖ as unfit to govern.

While the FPÖ fell into disgrace after the Ibiza video, Kurz emerged unscathed from the scandal. He won an impressive mandate with 37% of the votes at the recent election; the FPÖ saw its vote fall by 10 percentage points; while the SPÖ, historically the other Austrian party of government, was far behind at 21%.

For his supporters Kurz is therefore the man who tamed the far-right and revived the conservative brand. The successful populist is now by far the strongest politician in Austria. Could he be the model for others in Europe? In Germany, parts of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) are watching closely as the era of moderate Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to an end amid the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Armin Laschet, minister president of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia put it succinctly: ‘This is what we need: Clear ideas, short sentences, concise messages’.

But following the Austrian example is not a trouble-free branding exercise. The inclusion of the far-right FPÖ in a coalition government had a significant impact on Austria’s foreign and its domestic policies.  

Until 2016, the FPÖ had toyed with the idea of ‘Öxit’, of Austria’s departure from the EU. After the Brexit chaos started to unravel Britain’s political system, FPÖ politicians toned down their messages, but remained deeply sceptical of the EU. The coalition programme of ‘Liste Kurz’ and the FPÖ only had four pages on European politics, mainly dealing with ‘bringing back’ powers from the EU to nation states. While Merkel in Berlin tried to persuade EU partners to launch creative and sustainable policies to manage the refugee crisis and immigration in general, Kurz mainly called for closing the borders.

The right–far-right coalition also broke ranks with other EU leaders in the relationship with Russia. The FPÖ had signed a cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, in 2016, hoping to collaborate where suitable on economic, business and political projects.

And if this was not enough, Karin Kneissl, the foreign minister appointed by the FPÖ, invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to her wedding in July 2018. The images of her kneeling in front of Russia’s strongman during a dance were highly embarrassing not only for Austria, but for the EU.

European security services have also grown increasingly concerned about the far-right party in government. After hardline FPÖ politician Herbert Kickl was appointed minister of the interior he raided his own ministry in February 2018 in order to get hold of sensitive material collected about far-right activists. He also started to replace mostly conservative officials in the ministry with people of his own persuasion. Could Austria’s secret services under the new leadership of far-right politicians be trusted not to leak sensitive information to Russia? Other Western security services started to lower the level of their cooperation with Austria.

Furthermore, a string of embarrassing revelations in the past year indicate that some FPÖ politicians had contacts with activists of the extremist movement Die Identitären. Its leader, Martin Sellner, was in contact with accused Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant, who allegedly donated €1,500 to Sellner’s organisation. Yet the fear was that surveillance of these groups could no longer be guaranteed under Austrian Interior Minister Kickl.

After the Ibiza video emerged in May 2019, Kurz called for the removal of Kickl from the Ministry of the Interior as the condition for continuation of the coalition with the FPÖ. Kickl had no connection with the Ibiza scandal, but Kurz seemed to share the popular opinion that the interior minister was damaging his government. The coalition subsequently collapsed.

Since the FPÖ lost the election on 29 September, Kurz might now turn to the second winner of the election, the Green Party. A long and painful negotiation process is to be expected. Kurz and the Greens come from very different political camps.

Kurz is now standing at a very important crossroads in his career. He could distance himself from far-right policies and strongmen like Putin or Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Will he listen to the young, future-oriented Greens or will he be drawn back to Austria’s past and renew the pact with the far-right FPÖ?

Tessa Szyszkowitz is an Austrian journalist, author and curator at the think tank Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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