Last December, a sigh of relief could be heard in Brussels as well as Vienna when the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen defeated Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the Austrian presidential election. It seemed as though the coming of a new dark age of populism and nationalism might be averted, and that a string of debacles for Western liberal democracies—from the Brexit referendum to the election of Donald Trump—had finally been broken.
As it turned out, Van der Bellen’s triumph was the beginning of a new era of political volatility in Austria. In the presidential election, no candidate from either of the two ruling parties, the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Socialist Party (SPÖ), advanced to the second round. It was a crucial development in a country where these two juggernauts have been in power, either in a “grand coalition” or separately, for most of the last 100 years. Moreover, Austria’s electorate boasts the highest percentage of party membership among all the countries of Europe. The reason is that the ÖVP and SPÖ are much more than political parties: They are corporations ready to secure the interests of their members and sympathizers, rewarding them for their loyalty with jobs and subsidized apartments.
The failure of the ÖVP and SPÖ to qualify for the second round represented more than just a local crisis. It was a sign of a broader social change that was also evident in the recent French presidential election, in which the previously dominant Socialist and Republican parties were likewise shut out of the second round. Van der Bellen’s victory suggests that even Austrian voters, long faithful to their traditional parties, are increasingly at odds with left/right labels and hungry for a political alternative.
Sebastian Kurz has been auditioning for that role for several years, and on May 15 he laid claim to it when he took over the leadership of the ÖVP. To call Kurz a rising political star would be an understatement. In 2011, at the age of 25, he was appointed to the new position of state integration secretary; two years later, he was elected to Parliament with the largest number of direct votes and was also appointed foreign minister—the youngest in the world. Already very popular, Kurz saw his approval ratings improve in early 2016, when he started negotiations that led to the closing of the so-called “Balkan route” that refugees had used to enter Europe. Kurz was suddenly seen as an important counterweight to German Chancellor Angela Merkel—a polished and urbane European politician willing to oppose Merkel’s “open doors” policy with arguments at the negotiating table, rather than with the barbed wire and tear gas favored by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Kurz’s arguments for closing the Balkan route were simple but carefully worded. To this day, Austrians repeat his catchphrase “NGO Wahnsinn” (“NGO Madness”), a label for NGOs that contact smugglers in order to save migrants from sinking boats. These NGOs provide a perverse safety net for the smugglers, Kurz argued, and their strategy is doubly self-defeating: The smugglers are not only encouraged to cram more people into boats that are provided with less fuel (thereby increasing their profits), but the refugees are encouraged to stick with the smugglers’ services, because they can count on being rescued by NGOs operating in the Mediterranean if something goes wrong. Shortly after the Balkan route was shut down in March 2016, conditions in the refugee camps along the route deteriorated drastically because of overcrowding. Kurz, however, believed that such short-term costs were necessary to achieve a longer-term solution.