Austria: A young leader shifts the country rightward
Austria’s likely new chancellor is an energetic young “political entrepreneur,” said Peter Ulram in Die Presse (Austria). In 2013, at age 27, Sebastian Kurz became the country’s youngest-ever foreign minister. Last week, the now 31-year-old Kurz led the center-right People’s Party to first place in Austria’s national election, winning 31 percent of the vote. Before Kurz took over as party leader last May, polls showed the far-right Freedom Party— founded by ex-Nazis—with a clear lead. But the Freedom Party ended up finishing a hair behind the center-left Social Democrats, each getting about 27 percent. Far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache claimed Kurz stole his supporters by adopting his anti-immigrant, tough-on-crime platform, but that can’t be the whole story, since the Freedom Party also picked up votes. Austrians flocked to Kurz partly for his low-tax populism and partly because they credit the foreign minister with halting the flow of migrants through the country in 2015. Kurz will now be given the first chance to try to form a government, probably with the Freedom Party as a junior coalition partner. If he succeeds, the wunderkind will become one of the world’s youngest national leaders.
It’s “a tectonic shift” in Austrian politics, said Joachim Riedl in Die Zeit (Germany). This election marked not just the rise of the Right, but also the collapse of the Left. It’s only the second time since 1966 that the Social Democrats haven’t won a plurality of the votes, and the Greens completely imploded, thanks to a party split. The People’s Party triumph is all the more notable given that the youthful Kurz didn’t win the youth vote. Under-29s plumped for the Freedom Party, possibly turned off by Kurz’s tendency to come across as a “know-it-all teacher’s pet.”
The People’s Party is supposed to be center-right, said Paolo Valentino in Corriere della Sera (Italy), but with Kurz at the helm there’s hardly any difference between it and the ultranationalist Freedom Party. Both parties want to strengthen border security and ban Muslim immigrants. In outlook and policy, Kurz is far closer to authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban than he is to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. His ascent in Austria is yet another sign that oncemoderate conservative parties are willing to mimic the far right’s “hard line on migrants, Islam, and internal security.”
Yet Europe simply accepts this, said The Guardian in an editorial. The last time the Freedom Party entered government with the People’s Party, in 2000, an appalled European Union imposed diplomatic sanctions and Israel withdrew its ambassador. This time, “international calls to treat any Austrian government that includes the Freedom Party as a pariah are conspicuous by their absence.” Maybe that’s because such an outcome seems inevitable: Kurz forced this election by taking his party out of a ruling coalition with the Social Democrats, so he can hardly partner with them now. The only other option is for the Social Democrats to team up with the Freedom Party. Whatever form the new government takes, it will be “sharply nationalistic.” ■