Democracy With a Cynically Populist Face

Democracy With a Cynically Populist Face

Democracy With a Cynically Populist Face

Sebastian Kurz and the new Austrian politics.


The victory of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in the country’s October 15 parliamentary elections came as no surprise. After Sebastian Kurz, the 30-year-old prodigy and popular foreign minister who served in a coalition government of social democrats and conservatives, took over the party’s leadership on May 15, the ÖVP immediately leapt from third place to first in the opinion polls, and during the ensuing five-month campaign the “Kurz effect” did not wane.

It was quite an achievement, considering that the elections were preceded by what Austrians have called the Schmutzkübel-Kampagne, or “trash-bin campaign.” The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), led by Chancellor Christian Kern, anticipated a fierce rivalry with the ÖVP and hired the political consultant Tal Silberstein to conduct opposition research. It soon came to light that Silberstein had commissioned the creation of a Facebook page called Die Wahrheit Über Sebastian Kurz (“The Truth About Sebastian Kurz”), which floated false and occasionally anti-Semitic content. An equally ugly Facebook site, Die Wahrheit Über Christian Kern, went live almost at the same time as the Kurz site, but it was the Social Democrats who were caught red-handed and left with a damaged reputation. The SPÖ was further tarnished by its connection with Silberstein after he was arrested in Israel, where he lives, on charges of money laundering.

Yet the increasingly nasty and personal rivalry between Kurz and Kern wasn’t the primary concern for European analysts and commentators observing the parliamentary elections in Austria. Instead, the main issue was whether the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) would win enough votes to be considered a potential coalition partner with the ÖVP.

A Failed Strategy of Taming Populism

When Kurz took over the ÖVP, the party’s support soared, mainly because the young politician was seen as a pragmatist who had solved the refugee crisis in Austria without walling off the country with barbed wire. His closing of the so-called Balkan route was the result of bilateral negotiations between Austria and the countries through which it passed. This was heralded by Austrian tabloids as a great success and an alternative to the unpopular “open-door policy” of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Apart from the European dimension to the issue, Kurz’s closing of the Balkan route and his self-proclaimed pragmatism in dealing with the influx of refugees was believed to be appealing to centrist voters. The thinking was that these voters would support the policy not because it was the best or most humane solution, but rather because it might weaken the FPÖ, which favored harshly punitive measures for refugees similar to those adopted by Viktor Orbán, the authoritarian leader in Hungary.

The influx of refugees did drop. In 2015, some 88,000 people applied for asylum in Austria; in 2016, that number fell by roughly half; and by the end of September 2017, only 19,000 or so refugees had applied for asylum. Yet the strategy was a humanitarian failure, not least because the refugees themselves paid the price for this success. Closing down the Balkan route created semipermanent refugee camps in the Balkan nations, with a settlement in Belgrade dubbed “a new Calais”—after the squalid migrant camps on the outskirts of the French port city—probably being the best known.

Moreover, the strategy failed to contain the far right. Not only did the FPÖ garner 5.5 percent more votes than in the previous election in 2013, but it did so by attracting voters from the other parties. Although the FPÖ lost 168,000 voters to the ÖVP, it offset that by drawing almost as many from the SPÖ (155,000) as well as a substantial number of ÖVP voters (96,000). Instead of fleeing the FPÖ, moderate voters ended up gravitating to it.

Moreover, it’s clear that Kurz’s “pragmatic” course legitimated some of the FPÖ’s anti-immigrant arguments. During the campaign, the discussion moved quickly from the question of refugees to the issue of integrating immigrants and people with Migrationshintergrund (an immigrant background) already living in Austria. Kurz himself had opened this front in the Austrian culture wars by commissioning, when he was foreign minister, a study of Muslim kindergartens. The study reported that the institutions in question failed even at basic attempts to integrate children into the Austrian culture by instructing them in German. Leaked ministerial memos showed, however, that officials were ordered to trim the study and present only selected results in order to illustrate a politically favorable thesis. Eventually, the scientific integrity of the entire study was cast into doubt, but Kurz escaped the controversy unblemished and emboldened. He was seen as a politician who doesn’t fear tackling the difficult issues and isn’t concerned with political correctness. The price for all this was the normalization of far-right arguments against integration.

A Parliament Without (Real) Opposition

The takeover of the ÖVP by Kurz; the increasingly ugly rivalry between him and Chancellor Kern; the FPÖ angling to become part of the ruling coalition for the first time since the infamous Jörg Haider led the party to national victory in 1999—as if all of this weren’t disruptive enough, the Green Party was caught in the most serious crisis of its 30-year history. It became clear just how serious the crisis was when the Greens won only 3.8 percent of the vote—8.6 percent less than in 2013—which meant the party had failed to meet the 4 percent threshold for entering Parliament. Yet only 10 months earlier, Alexander Van der Bellen, a former chair of the Greens, had won the December 2016 presidential election by defeating the FPÖ’s Norbert Hofer after a particularly long battle.

How did the party that had managed to reinvigorate hopes for progressive forces not only in Austria but throughout Europe all but collapse in less than a year? Internal power struggles and the lack of systemic mechanisms that would accommodate intraparty political differences were largely to blame. In Austria, the Greens are still very much a party of ideologues, and their candidates for Parliament are selected by a vote at the party’s national convention according to the principle of internal democracy. This procedure, however, favors groupthink and allows party functionaries to control the outcome.

The Greens have little tolerance for those who stray from the party line in any area. Peter Pilz, one of the party’s founders and its most experienced parliamentarian, is closer on issues of immigration and integration to the right-wing parties, and his flair for showmanship irritated some prominent Greens. Although Pilz remained an ardent advocate of anticorruption measures and successfully chaired a parliamentary commission looking into bribery and favoritism in the selection of a fighter jet for the Austrian army, he suffered a humiliating defeat at the party convention and was denied a fourth place on the ballot. As a result, Pilz left the Greens and formed his own party, which won more than 4 percent of the vote and entered Parliament. Albert Steinhauser, chairman of the Green parliamentary club, summed it up succinctly shortly after the elections: “Had we elected Peter Pilz to be fourth on the ballot, we would be in Parliament now.”

The Green debacle is important for two reasons. The first is symbolic and resonates beyond Austria: It shows that progressive gains can be undermined and reversed very quickly. Van der Bellen won thanks to his endurance and his ability to connect with voters outside the typical Green bubble of the big cities and affluent urban middle class. But this lesson was lost on his party, which during the electoral campaign came off as sectarian and inflexible.

The second reason is internal: The Austrian Parliament will now be lacking an important oppositional voice. No matter how tenacious Christian Kern may be as leader of the opposition, many Austrians see the SPÖ as an ossified mainstream party, well entrenched in the trade unions and other institutions under its control. A vote for Van der Bellen was very often a vote against the old order of a corporatist state controlled by the two biggest parties, the SPÖ and the ÖVP. With the Greens absent from Parliament, this antiestablishment sentiment could very well be captured and channeled by the far right. And even if progressive antiestablishment voters don’t go so far as to vote for the FPÖ, they may abstain from voting at all.

Between Budapest and Brussels

When, fresh off his victory, Kurz officially started coalition talks with FPÖ chief Heinz-Christian Strache, the question that was already on the minds of many became even more pressing: Will Austria move closer toward Central European “illiberal democracies” like Poland and Hungary? Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian foreign minister, publicly congratulated Kurz on his victory by saying, “We are glad that one of our sister parties has won, [a party that] in many instances—like, for example, the question of immigration—holds similar views to the Hungarian government.” Such an alliance is exactly what European liberals fear.

For now, it seems likely that Kurz will try to bring his balancing act between pragmatism and populism to a new (and European) level by declaring his eagerness to cooperate more closely with other Central European countries and, at the same time, playing nice with Brussels. But this will require significantly more skill than his stint as a minister in a much more pro-European government. After all, Euroskepticism is part of the FPÖ’s political DNA: Strache has repeatedly insisted that Austria should join the Visegrád Group, which consists of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, all of which present themselves as victims of the EU elite.

Those prone to wishful thinking hope that a future Chancellor Kurz will co-opt and tone down some parts of the far right’s anti-European discourse, in order to draw some of the FPÖ’s more moderate voters closer to the European mainstream. However, given that a similar strategy failed spectacularly during the elections, to promote this hope would be not only naive but also irresponsible on the part of any pro-European centrist supporter of Kurz’s “new ÖVP.”

Regardless of whether Austria moves politically closer to Hungary or remains in the same proximity to Brussels as before, the recent parliamentary elections certainly did not strengthen the country’s public sphere. Dirty campaigns with anti-Semitic undertones in a nation that has yet to reckon fully with its Nazi past, coupled with the intense personal rivalry between Kurz and Kern, made any serious coalition talks between social democrats and conservatives virtually impossible. Indeed, during the coalition talks, press photographers were not allowed to take pictures; instead, newspapers were offered carefully preselected and sanitized official photographs. This is the new Austrian politics: a struggle for power among parties obsessed with controlling their image at the expense of tackling serious political issues, in a nation that is significantly less pluralistic. Right now, it is a democracy with a cynically populist face.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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