The reputable German news outlet Die Welt is recently cited as saying that, “The alternative to [Angela] Merkel is not the Alternative for Germany, it is [Sebastian] Kurz.”
The 31-year old Austrian Chancellor has become a sort of rock star in Europe, famous for his embrace of anti-migration policies à la Orban or Kaczynski. His Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) is now at the center of political power in the country, being the larger of two parties in the ruling coalition; the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) is the other. The question political pundits have been asking themselves since the October elections is whether or not this rightward shift in Austria is indicative of another populist success.
The short answer is yes. However, it would be a misstep to lump the success of populism in Austria into a bundle with its other Western European counterparts. To understand this crucial nuance, it is important to understand the unique Austrian political landscape and the space that populist parties occupy within it. The most striking difference between Austria and many Western European countries is that Austrians are used to populists, especially the FPÖ, being in power. The first stint came in 2000-2005 after gaining 27% of votes in the 1999 general election. Here too, the Freedom Party formed a coalition with the People’s Party, only this time as the larger of the two ruling parties. This is important for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it shatters the long-held presumption in Western democracies that by flirting with right-wing extremists, a politician or party runs the risk of losing both credibility and support. Germany, France, and the Netherlands, to name a few, are countries where this credo still holds weight and defines the strategy of newly formed government coalitions in the past year.
The embrace of the far-right is not only felt in parliamentary elections. In 2016, Norbert Hofer proceeded to the final round of the country’s presidential runoff elections and only nearly missed capturing the presidency – he received 49.7% of the vote. In the December revote ordered by the constitutional court, Hofer lost to Green Party candidate and current President Alexander van der Bellen by a slightly larger margin. Nonetheless, the fact that a right-wing populist can proceed this far and perform this well in an electoral process is telling of the acceptance Austrians show for anti-migration and nationalist narratives. It is an acceptance that is not strong enough in and of itself to push a populist to the presidency, but one that allows for the right politician with the right political capital and message to accede to power. That man is Sebastian Kurz.
As a political personality, one is quick to compare the 31-year old Kurz with the now 40-year old French head of state, Emmanuel Macron. Both are young and emphasize their parties as being ‘movements’, thus legitimizing them as harbingers of change. Yet where Macron campaigns outside of the formal Socialist party structure, Kurz aims to reshape and rebrand his People’s Party from within. Rather than propose an entirely new political platform, Kurz instead shifted the party’s program to focus primarily on migration and adopt policies previously promoted by the populist right. In doing so, he has touted his achievement as foreign minister of closing the ‘Balkan route’, voiced support for a burqa ban and for lowering the amount of state support received by refugees.
These are not revolutionary policy proposals for anti-migration politicians. What is revolutionary, however, is the way they are presented. We are used to firebrands such as Marine le Pen or Viktor Orban employing harsh language pitting refugees against ‘traditional European values’. They are our ‘traditional’ populists: arguing for ‘the people’, pitting ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’ (in this case Brussels), etc. However, if traditional populists require fire and brutality, Kurz employs calm water and poise to deliver his message.
Canovan teaches us that populism is essentially the ideology of democracy, and better described as a discourse than actual policy. Kurz’s incorporation of the far right into his mainstream centre-right could show us that this discourse doesn’t have to be fiery or divisive to be successful. Whether his was a temporary success that capitalized off of a moment or a success that will hold in the long term remains to be seen. What is clear, though, is that centre-right parties in Europe attempting to deal with the far-right populist threat will be looking to Vienna in the near future.