Austria: Another Political Success Built on a Populism?
By Teresa Eder
On October 15, the Austrian electorate rewarded 31-year-old foreign minister Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian Conservative Party (ÖVP) and far-right candidate Heinz Christian Strache of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) with a combined 55 percent of their vote. The occasion marked the shift of yet another European country to the populist right, in an election largely characterized as a rejection of immigration.
If Kurz and the Freedom Party elect to form a government, it won’t be the first time that a party with historical links to antisemitism and Nazi-related historical revisionism has entered the Austrian parliament. What the recent election appears to show, however, is the extent to which Austria’s political mainstream—across the spectrum—is willing to engage in anti-immigrant, antisemitic, and divisive rhetoric.
In his first reaction on public TV after the election, the Freedom Party’s Strache touched upon the trend of normalizing far-right policies: “One thing is obvious: Today, almost 60 percent of the Austrian population voted for our program and want change.” Strache implicitly took credit for Kurz’s voter base, and argued that his policies have arrived in the middle of Austrian society.
Kurz, for his part, built a successful campaign around co-opting what had heretofore been far-right ideas. Some commentators initially argued that Kurz was enacting a well-conceived strategy to halt the rise of far-right populists. But a survey of Kurz’s recent statements leaves one with the distinct impression that he plans to maintain the policies that swept him into office, and will likely govern the country alongside Strache, whose Neo-Nazi ties during his youth are well known to the public.
In an interview with Tagesspiegel, a well-respected German daily newspaper, the Viennese writer Doron Rabinovici describes the differences between the two parties: “The Freedom Party is using populism to hide its far-right extremism. The Conservative Party is using populism to garner support amongst those who are prone to flirt with far-right resentments.”
Kurz, who entered the government as a Secretary of Integration at age 25, has increased his anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent years. He accused NGOs in the Mediterranean Sea of being responsible for an increased stream of refugees due to their rescue operations. He spread the false rumor that in Bosnia and Kosovo women are paid to wear the niqab in public. Kurz has also emphasized that his greatest political achievement as foreign minister was to close the so-called Balkan migrant route so that fewer refugees could reach the Austrian border.
With the second-highest vote tally in the recent election, Austria’s Social Democratic Party has yet to exclude partaking in a new government, including potentially in coalition with the Freedom Party. Although it is expected that Kurz will take the lead since he came in first place, the willingness of the Social Democrats to at least explore talks with the far right is already a deviation from its previous political principles. It also is an indicator that dirty campaigning did not demonstrably hurt the Social Democrats on election day.
In late September, the Austrian weekly political magazine Profil revealed that two antisemitic, racist, and conspiratorial Facebook pages (“The whole truth about Sebastian Kurz” and “We for Sebastian Kurz”) were established from within the Social Democratic Party as a smear campaign. Prior to Profil’s revelation, the common assumption was that the far right and its supporters ran the sites to discredit Kurz.
It may never be fully clear if and to what degree the Social Democrats’ party leadership was informed about the seemingly clandestine operation. The party has thus far attributed sole responsibility to Israeli campaign manager Tal Silberstein, who was fired from his position in August after being detained by Israeli police over suspected bribery in an unrelated incident.
Dirty politics is as old as politics itself, of course. Unfortunately, the Facebook page affair highlights both a concerning low with respect to its invocation of xenophobia and antisemitism, and a trend in modern discourse: politics as a means to divide and exclude, rather than to unite.
More long lasting will be Sebastian Kurz’s decisions moving forward, including his alliance with a political party once seen as firmly beyond the pale. Kurz has been reported stating that any governing coalition he leads would need a “policy of zero tolerance against any anti-Semitic tendencies.” This is exactly the right message. How it will be implemented by a governing coalition built on ethno-nationalist populism, and likely incorporating a party with worryingly historical antisemitic tendencies, remains to be seen.