Balancing Principles and Politics in Austria

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz delivers a news conference at the presidential office at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria, May 21, 2019. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s decision to break with the Freedom party might be a sign of good character, but it will come with political headaches.

On Saturday, May 18, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared the end of his coalition government. Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) had formed a tenuous alliance with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) after legislative elections in October 2017. But following the release on Friday of a video of Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the FPÖ, a remarkably calm Kurz proclaimed, “Enough is enough,” citing multiple instances of misconduct on the part of his FPÖ colleagues over the years.

In the video, which was filmed in 2017, Strache discusses the potential to provide business prospects in Austria for his host, who claimed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, in exchange for her support in the upcoming election, including the possibility (suggested by the woman and agreed to by Strache) that she might purchase the Austrian tabloid Kronen Zeitung in order to provide favorable coverage of the ÖVP. There is no indication that anything came of these discussions after the one meeting recorded in the video. Strache, while maintaining that he had done nothing illegal, apologized for his conduct and resigned, both as vice chancellor and as leader of the ÖVP, within a day of the video’s appearance. Multiple FPÖ officials followed suit as Kurz called for a snap election in hopes of forming a new government.

That the two-year-old video first surfaced last week, in the lead-up to European Parliament elections slated for May 26, suggests a carefully timed strike against both Strache’s FPÖ and the Kurz-led coalition. Of 18 Austrian seats in the European Parliament, the ÖVP currently holds five, the FPÖ four. Historically Euroskeptic, the FPÖ has shifted in recent years, especially since the formation of the coalition in 2017, toward reluctant support of the European Union; fiercely nationalist, it has been at the forefront of a growing movement in the EU against mass immigration. The ÖVP has been typically supportive of EU membership but staunchly opposed to recent EU policies and practices that have encouraged mass immigration. Given the importance of the immigration debate in current EU proceedings, a shift in power toward any of Austria’s more pro-immigration parties could prove significant.

Domestically, Kurz has succeeded on the key issues of immigration and EU membership. On both issues, the influence of the center-right ÖVP has tempered the far-right FPÖ. Both in these two areas and across the board, the result has been (with a few glaring exceptions, the endorsement of a federal basic income being a particularly disappointing example) a platform that’s at least palatable, and often downright impressive, to American conservatives: including, among other things, border-control measures that are strict without neglecting genuine humanitarian need, major reforms of tax codes and entitlement programs, and relaxation of restrictive labor policies such as the ten-hour maximum workday.

That being said, Kurz’s misgivings about association with the FPÖ are understandable. The party’s roots — it was founded in 1956 by a former SS officer — should raise some eyebrows right off the bat. But the ÖVP’s own immediate predecessor, the Fatherland Front, is generally considered fascist as well — though, to its credit, it was always firmly opposed to Nazism. It is an unfortunate reality that the histories of many Continental political bodies are tinged with fascist associations from the last century.

This history, however, does not define the parties of today, and there is precious little evidence that the modern FPÖ might rightly be called a fascist party, or even that its historical roots are particularly relevant to its present life. More plausible and more concerning than the ideological accusations against the organization are the very real charges (and confessions) of corruption and bigotry among its individual members. In one egregious incident, Christian Schilcher, a minor FPÖ politician — the vice mayor of Braunau am Inn, incidentally Hitler’s hometown — published a poem equating migrants with rats. Chancellor Kurz even cited this particular episode in the announcement of his recent decision. What the chancellor seems to have forgotten, however, is that Schilcher was pushed to resign and swiftly condemned by FPÖ leadership, including the now-excommunicated Strache. He was not the rule but an exception to it, and an exception quickly dispensed with.

To define the FPÖ by Schilcher and the few people like him would be no different from defining the Democratic party by Robert Byrd, or the Republican party by Steve King, or either party by David Duke (depending on the day). Like any movement, it has some deplorable members, though they don’t quite constitute half and they’re not really in a basket. Is the FPÖ, left to its own devices, too extreme? Almost certainly. But is it an unhinged mob of neo-Nazis with no rightful place in government? Not quite. On the contrary, the FPÖ, under Kurz’s moderating influence, proved a valuable, if imperfect, conservative agent in Austrian and European government.

Kurz has decided that this association is no longer an acceptable price to pay for his remarkable success in coalition governance. This decision should be acknowledged and admired for its undoubtedly good intention, and perhaps even as evidence of good character, but good intentions and good character do not always equal good politics. If the choice is between Sebastian Kurz’s honor and Austria’s — perhaps even Europe’s — future, then it’s not really much of a choice at all.

Just what result might Kurz be hoping for from the election he has requested? The most obvious possibility is a new coalition with the center-left Social Democrats, who currently hold 52 seats in the National Council (out of 183 total) to the ÖVP’s 61. What might a coalition platform between the Social Democrats and the ÖVP look like, though? In all likelihood: mostly just like the Social Democrats’ platform, with a few minor changes for appearance’s sake. Kurz has even admitted that his party’s economic agenda would not be feasible in a coalition government with the Social Democrats. Having ruled out any possibility of continued cooperation with the only other right-wing party in the National Council, Kurz has very little leverage to negotiate any deal; he even faces a no-confidence vote slated for Monday, May 27, demanded by both his opponents on the left and by former FPÖ allies.

The other parties currently holding seats in the National Council (the Greens, with ten, and NEOS, or the New Austria and Liberal Forum, with 7) are both too far to the left and too inconsequential to form a governing coalition. Kurz’s only other chance, then — and it’s a terribly slim one — is for the ÖVP to win a strict majority in the legislature, thereby eliminating the need for coalition. But the jump from 61 to 92 seats would have been a near-impossibility even before this most recent shake-up. Now, the ÖVP will consider itself lucky if it just manages to avoid massive losses.

The FPÖ, on the other hand, finds itself at its highest point of influence in decades. It has seen steady rises every cycle since winning just 18 seats in the 2002 elections, culminating in a 51-seat victory this last election — just one less than the Social Democrats. Especially now that the immensely popular Norbert Hofer, who very nearly became president in 2016, has replaced Strache as party leader, the FPÖ could very well prove a formidable force going forward. This could be bad news for Kurz, given how forcefully he has just condemned them, and how forcefully they have responded.

If Hofer’s FPÖ and Kurz’s ÖVP can mend fences, they may very well grow into one of the most effective movements on the right to govern in Europe in recent memory. Their model could in turn serve as a template for conservatives across the EU to win elections and effectively govern afterward. Kurz’s only other choice is to accept near-certain defeat and watch his country be governed by a new coalition of any of the parties to his left, a coalition almost certain to undo the significant accomplishments of the last two years. There is only one path forward for a conservative Austria, and Kurz was already on it before Saturday’s announcement. It may not be a pretty one, but it’s better than any of the alternatives.


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