The Austrian Election: Europe’s Rightward Shift

The recent Austrian elections are further proof of a growing rightward trend in Western politics. In terms of actors in the election: on the left there is the NEOS coalition, on the right there is a coalition between the center right, the current Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrat Party of Austria (SPO), and the victorious Sebastian Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP), and to the far right the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO). While the right winning the election is not necessarily a novelty in Austria, the shift further to the right holds some weight, demonstrating that, perhaps, the Austrian people have no interest in the middle ground of their own politics. They are looking for a more extreme solution.

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Kurz’s victory has multiple implications, and reflects several contemporary political trends. Only 31 years old, he represents yet another instance of the election of younger leaders, seen in Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Instead of age harming Kurz and his peers, it seems to be helping them. Much like Macron promised to reinvigorate the French political scene, giving it a more modern, active feel, Kurz changed his party’s colors from black to turquoise, helping the party to seem less dated than it’s competition. His lack of a tie in many public appearances, trendy suits, and youthful look help him relate to younger voters, despite his more right-wing position on immigration. His appearance is unthreatening and his ability to build a brand for himself, with balloons at rallies, hashtags and the idea of “Team Kurtz”, certainly enabled his party’s electoral success. He appears to be full of life, passionate, and have a genuine interest in improving Austria, all of which are refreshing to voters and possibly helped sway them in his favor.

Does this youthful link with Macron mean that we will be seeing a French and Austrian collaboration in the future? Kurz hasn’t communicated much on the subject, though he has indicated that he has a lot of respect for his French counterpart. Macron was notably opposed Front National (FN), a party that has parallels with the Austrian FPO. However, this does not necessarily mean that he will be opposed with working with Kurz since both are pro-European leaders.

Kurz and the OVP’s victory also have implications for German politics, considering the results of Germany’s federal elections. Kurz’s has previously been described as “Merkel’s lapdog”, a description that he is looking to distance himself from. The right in Germany picked up 13 seats in the last election ensuring that it is now the third largest bloc present in the legislature. This indicates that while Merkel remains in power, she might have to start paying more attention to what the right has to say domestically. This could result in a similar trend internationally. There is a growing undertone of fear in Europe: fear of immigrants, fear of the “other”, fear of losing one’s sense of national identity. Merkel will have to counter that if she looks to keep her seat as chancellor. Allying herself with Kurz on certain issues might help her coopt more right-wing elements of the German electorate.

When it comes to Kurz’s own country and what he plans to do, it is clear that he will at least attempt to secure himself a coalition government. Both the SPO and, notably, the further right FPO are potential coalition partenrs. Since the FPO made up more ground in this election than was expected, it is almost certain that Kurz will at least attempt to rally them to his cause. While he has said that he will rule with a minority government if that is what it comes to, it would not be ideal for him in terms of passing any of the legislation he looks to put forward. He will need a coalition for maximum productivity. From the point of view of FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache, his party is more than willing to enter into a coalition with Kurz, signaling that at least part of the new Austrian government will be behind their new leader going forward.

Kurz has also indicated that he respects the leader of the SPO and might be willing to work with him in the future, indicating that, at least for now, he is open to forming a coalition with parties on both sides of the political spectrum. This bodes well for Austrian stability.

In many ways, this new Austrian government will be a test case for the rest of Europe to see if the far right can be governed with, and made to compromise for the good of the nation. The world will be watching to see if and how it can be done. This is especially essential given the rightward shift in Europe. As more right wing governments come to power, the ability of established parties to work with the far-right will be critical to maintaining the European stability Internationally, it may determine the future of the EU. Kurz will need to walk a fine line by addressing the fears and anger of those that elected him while also not giving into the xenophobes that will undoubtedly attempt to take advantage of his right leaning position to push a hate filled agenda. He will need a balanced coalition to ensure success in this endeavour.

So while Kurz will be looking to ally himself with parties within his own state and outside of it, he must also focus on actually bringing about the change he promised in his campaign if he is to make his party’s recent gain in the polls last. He will have to take a hard line on immigration, as promised, and look to resolve the high unemployment Austrians are currently suffering from. It will be best if he attempts to make friends with those around him, but he mustn’t let it distract him from being the friend he has so painted himself as to the people who elected him.

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