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.