Austria Shifts Further Right – 2017 National Elections
Sebastian Kurz, 31, leader of the conservative Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) party, and until earlier this year mostly known as the man who as foreign minister effectively closed the so-call Balkan migrant route to northern Europe in early 201, is set to become the world’s youngest head of government. The ÖVP took about 32% of the vote in elections on 15 October.
In the end, the Austrian election outcome offers no big surprises, but one small one.
As predicted by the polls, the People’s Party (OVP) is projected to win with over 31% of the votes, propelled to victory by its slick new leader, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who has adopted key themes of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), such as migration, security and criticism of the European Union.
However, it’s still not clear who will come second – with important implications for the coalition-building process, since no single party will have enough votes to govern alone. Ahead of the counting of most of the record 889,000 postal ballots on Monday, projections give the Social Democrats (SPO) a slender lead of less than one percentage point.
If charismatic Kurz, who rebranded the ‘black’ OVP as the ‘turquoise’ “Sebastian Kurz list” for the campaign, is to become the world’s youngest state leader, he will have to strike a deal with either the FPO or the SPO.
Many of his supporters favour the former, whose views on immigration and the EU are similar, and Austrian media have reported that he has already made them a generous offer, which would see them return to government a decade after a previous coalition deal split the party and embroiled it in corruption allegations that wound their way through the courts for years.
Leader of the Far-right Freedom Party (FPO) Heinz-Christian Strache has reportedly demanded the job of Interior Minister as the price of entering a coalition with Kurz.
Austria’s far-right looked set on Monday to return to power in a coalition with conservative “whizz-kid” Sebastian Kurz, the world’s youngest leader-in-waiting, in a fresh triumph for European populists.
The expected rightward shift in the wealthy European Union member state will pose a fresh headache for Brussels as it struggles with Brexit and the rise of nationalists in Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.
Founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, the FPÖ’s result is close to its all-time record of 26.8 percent in 1999 under then leader Jörg Haider, and twice that of their allies the Alternative for Germany (AfD) last month.
Projections on Sunday night put the ÖVP ahead with 31.7% of the vote. The incumbent chancellor Christian Kern’s centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) were relegated to second place with 27% of the vote, while the far-right FPÖ took 25.9%, failing to match its best-ever result.
The Vienna-born politician will probably be tasked with forming the next government, potentially in coalition with the FPÖ, a far-right party founded by a former Nazi functionary and SS member after the second world war.
Critics argue that Kurz, whose manifesto has called for lower taxes and tougher measures against “political Islam”, only achieved his victory by embracing a divisive agenda dictated by the far-right. Of ÖVP voters, 55% said they had picked the party because of its stance on asylum and integration policies.
On the campaign trail, Kurz has been filling arenas and town squares across Austria in ways not seen since deceased populist politician Jörg Haider at his peak. Young and old, men and women — thousands have been flocking to his campaign events like disciples awaiting their savior. Kurz’s supporters view him as their yearned-for dragon slayer, a man who is making pledges that used to only come from the right-wing populists: to stop immigrants from accessing the country’s social system and reducing the benefits available to asylum-seekers in Austria. Opponents have criticized the conservative candidate as “Prince Iron-Heart” because he demanded earlier and more loudly than others that Austria put limits on immigration.
Kurz “discovered the refugee crisis” as his signature issue in August 2015, write the authors of “Flucht: Wie der Staat die Kontrolle verlor” (Flight: How the State Lost Control). Responding to the influx of refugees coming in through the Balkans at the time, the foreign minister wrote heated letters to his EU counterparts. And rather than welcoming refugees at the Vienna train station as some fellow government ministers did, he instead criticized what he called the dishonest way in which the refugees were then “waved on to Germany” that year.
Kurz says today that his policies at the time “were not only strategically, but also morally correct.” The reference is primarily to the discrete steps he took in early 2016 to close the Balkan route, used by most refugees at the time. Kurz also used contacts in Germany — to Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, to Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and to Bavarian conservatives, in order to secure backing for his actions. At around midnight on March 9, 2016, the route from Turkey via the Balkans to Austria and Germany was, in fact, sealed — against the will of Angela Merkel.