October 19, 2017 - by Markus Reisenleitner, York University
Last Sunday, Austria elected a new government. Less than a year after the Green party-backed social liberal, Alexander van der Bellen, was elected president, both the centre-right Conservative party (Austrian People’s party), the junior partner in the incumbent coalition government, and the far-right Freedom party made big gains while the Social Democrats, the senior partner in government, stagnated, and the Green Party all but disintegrated, losing 2/3 of its previous votes, which brought it below the 4% threshold that is required for parliamentary representation. The Conservatives landed a solid first place with 31.47% of the popular vote (a plus of 7.48%), the Social Democrats hung on to second place with 26.9% (+/-0), and the Freedom party ended up with 26% (a plus of 5.46%) of the vote.
This outcome, which constitutes a major shift to the right and will most likely lead to a coalition between the Conservatives and the Freedom Party (negotiations are ongoing at the time of writing), had been more or less predicted by the polls. Both the Greens’ and the Social Democrats’ campaigns had been marred by scandals, internal rivalries and missteps, while the recently elected new leader of the Conservatives, Sebastian Kurz, Foreign Minister in the last government, had successfully campaigned on his youth, personality, and a populist, socially divisive program of reform that promised to lower taxes, secure borders, and limit the influx of refugees and migrants, thus adopting many topics that had previously been the stronghold of the Freedom Party. Kurz renamed his party “The New People’s party”, presented it as a “movement”, and give it a new colour scheme, obvious but effective strategies that convinced many Austrians that a party that had been in government since 1986 (albeit as a junior partner for most of the time) would usher in a new era in Austrian politics.
There can be no doubt that the refugee issue, in conjunction with a well-established xenophobia and fear of migrants among large parts of the population, were the dominant issues for this desire for change in an affluent and stable country. Kurz prides himself on supporting ending the refugee “crisis” of 2015/16 by “closing the Balkan route”, re-introducing border controls in the Schengen zone, and banning facial coverings in public. The Freedom party has a long tradition of inciting both anti-Islam and EU-skeptical sentiments with provocative rants that put Heimat first, often alleging widespread social welfare abuse by non-Austrians. From preliminary analyses of voting patterns, it seems clear that for many voters who did not agree with such populist sentiments, the Social Democrats remain the only liberal-left option, to the detriment of the Green party.
What are the likely consequences of this election? One of the conditions the Freedom party will insist on to enter a coalition is the portfolio of the Interior Ministry, responsible for police and immigration. This does not bode well for migrants and refugees. Kurz already met with EU leaders and confirmed his commitment to the Union, important in view of Austria’s EU presidency during the second half of 2018. Whatever the results of coalition negotiations, Austria has joined a trend towards nationalist, populist and leader-centred politics.