Politics & Policy

Right-Wing Victory in Austria Today

Campaign posters for Austrian chancellor Christian Kern (left) and People’s Party’s candidate Sebastian Kurz in Vienna, October 8, 2017. (Reuters photo: Leonhard Foeger)
The populist right, though scorned by the Left as Islamophobic, gains ground in yet another European election.

Angela Merkel’s misguided migration policy — which allowed nearly 1 million people from Africa and the Middle East to enter Germany in 2015 — has claimed another political victim. Her centrist Christian Democratic government lost a great deal of support to the populist Alternative for Germany in last month’s election because of her mishandling of the migration flood. And today, Christian Kern, the left-wing Social Democratic chancellor of Austria, lost his job because of his own party’s involvement in opening Austria to 75,000 new migrants. Germany borders Austria, and many refugees and economic migrants entered Germany through Austria, with 75,000 remaining.

Festering public anger at uncontrolled immigration, crime, wasteful spending, and bureaucratic arrogance has hurt all established political parties. But the damage to left-wing parties has been the most severe. Taken together, the three left-wing parties in Germany — the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Left party — won only 38 percent of the vote in last month’s elections. Twenty years ago, the three combined won 53 percent. Similarly, in Austria, the three left-wing parties together won only 34 percent of the vote today, with the environmentalist Greens shut out of parliament for the first time in more than 30 years.

The clear winners are the parties of the populist Right. Take Austria. The center-right People’s Party was floundering early this year, trapped in an unpopular, status-quo coalition with the leftist Social Democrats. Then, in May, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz — the leader of the party’s youth wing — mounted a coup and ousted the party’s complacent leadership.

Kurz quickly moved his party to the right. He promoted tougher policies in a range of areas: migration, welfare benefits for foreigners, relations with the European Union, and border controls. He called for a ban on the wearing of burqas. He then announced his party could no longer govern with the Social Democrats, forcing this month’s snap election.

All these moves pushed Kurz’s People’s Party into first place in the polls, leapfrogging both the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party, a long-time populist party that once had neo-fascist associations but has worked to purge itself of questionable elements. Heinz-Christian Strache, the Freedom Party’s leader, joked at the “late bloomer” Kurz for stealing his party’s ideological clothing. He proclaimed himself “the visionary” who had shown Kurz the way.

In the end, Kurz and his party took first place, with 31.4 percent of the vote. The Freedom Party won 27.4 percent, and the Social Democrats won 26.7 percent. Even Chancellor Kern of the Social Democrats had to admit the nation has seen a “massive slide to the right.” The Freedom Party’s Strache was exultant that the negative media coverage hadn’t prevented his party from gaining votes. “The voter is always right. The ongoing hounding of us libertarians did not work,” he told Der Standard newspaper.

The almost certain outcome of the election will be a coalition government of the People’s Party and the Freedom Party. They governed together once before, from 2000 to 2005, and were able to implement what for Austria were radical economic reforms before they split after various scandals.

“Now we will see if a government of conservatives and pro-freedom liberals can work together to make further reforms,” Barbara Kolm of the Hayek Institute in Vienna told me. Obviously, Austria’s new government will be a mixed bag. But the two parties, which are already in talks to form the governing coalition, agree on many issues beyond migration.

“They agree that taxes should be cut. The prospect of a center-right alliance combining smaller, business-friendly economic measures with a nationalistic ‘Austria First’ cultural policy may frighten cosmopolitan elites in Brussels, London, and other capitals of influence throughout the world but it is what nearly 60 percent of Austria chose today,” says Henry Olsen, an American scholar of the Trump phenomenon, writing at Unherd.com.

What’s clear is that the depictions of Kurz and Strache as Islamophobic, intolerant, and radical failed spectacularly. In country after country, the Left is finding it will have to come up with a strategy beyond name-calling if it is serious about winning back lost voters.

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