Sunday

1st Aug 2021

Austrian voters reject liberal status quo

  • As Kurz prepares to ascend to the highest seat of Austrian power, the concern in Brussels will be that his views may be more aligned with those of Hungary and Poland than of France and Germany. (Photo: Sebastian Kurz/Flickr)

In the end, the Austrian election outcome offers no big surprises, but one small one.

As predicted by the polls, the People's Party (OVP) is projected to win with over 31% of the votes, propelled to victory by its slick new leader, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who has adopted key themes of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), such as migration, security and criticism of the European Union.

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  • Far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache, a probable future vice-chancellor, has demanded the interior ministry as the price for a deal. (Photo: HC Strache)

However, it's still not clear who will come second – with important implications for the coalition-building process, since no single party will have enough votes to govern alone. Ahead of the counting of most of the record 889,000 postal ballots on Monday, projections give the Social Democrats (SPO) a slender lead of less than one percentage point.

If charismatic Kurz, who rebranded the 'black' OVP as the 'turquoise' "Sebastian Kurz list" for the campaign, is to become the world's youngest state leader, he will have to strike a deal with either the FPO or the SPO.

Many of his supporters favour the former, whose views on immigration and the EU are similar, and Austrian media have reported that he has already made them a generous offer, which would see them return to government a decade after a previous coalition deal split the party and embroiled it in corruption allegations that wound their way through the courts for years.

However, in an interview with Austria's public broadcaster, Kurz pointedly declined to rule out a tie-up with the SPO, saying: "We have to wait for the result".

If the SPO does in fact come in second, the likelihood of a coalition rises, but few believe that former national railways head Christian Kern would stay on for that, as party chief.

He and Kurz, who walked away from the previous coalition government after taking over the OVP, sparking the early election, are far from the best of friends.

Ex-cop likely frontrunner

Frontrunner for new SPO head in such an event would be current defence minister, Hans-Peter Doskozil who rose to prominence as the no-nonsense chief of police of Austria's eastern federal state of Burgenland during the height of the 2015 refugee crisis.

He is the protege Hans Niessl, an advocate of a more right-wing SPO line and the governor of Burgenland, where he rules in coalition with the FPO.

A final, if less likely, option, if the SPO stays second, is a deal with the FPO, but the party would need to overcome stiff resistance from its left wing, embodied by Vienna mayor Michael Haeupl.

Headache for Brussels

The likelihood that Kurz will become Austria's next chancellor is therefore high, and whether he rules, as expected, with the FPO, or with the Social Democrats, Austria will have lurched starkly to the right, in yet another headache for the EU.

During his campaign, Kurz pledged to reduce "illegal migration" to Austria to "zero", and to withhold certain social benefits from foreigners, including non-Austrian EU citizens, until they have been in the country for five years.

He consistently takes credit for a reduction in the flow of migrants into the EU across the 'Balkan route' which he helped shut down with the assistance of in particular EU-sceptic Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, an admirer of "illiberal democracy."

Hungary is a member of the so-called Visegrad Four, a group that includes fellow migration hardliners Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland – which like Hungary has invoked the wrath of Brussels (and legal action) because of its flouting of EU democratic values.

As Kurz prepares to ascend to the highest seat of Austrian power, the concern among some in Brussels will be that his views on the EU, migration – and possibly even the EU's democratic values – may be more aligned with those of Hungary and Poland than of, say, France and Germany, whose chancellor, Angela Merkel, Kurz repeatedly criticised during his campaign.

Kurz also does not agree with the grand vision for further integration laid out by French president Emmanuel Macron, a few weeks ago.

Hardline Strache as interior minister?

Those concerns will be even greater if he is flanked by the far-right Freedom Party, whose hardline leader Heinz-Christian Strache, a probable future vice-chancellor, has demanded the Interior Ministry as the price for a deal.

Strache has consistently criticised the EU, says explicitly that Austria should align itself more closely with the Visegrad Four, wants to send all refugees home as soon as it is 'safe' to do so, and rarely misses an opportunity to accuse Kurz of 'stealing' his stances.

With Kurz and Strache at the helm, Austria's credentials as a moderate liberal pro-EU member state may well be on the line.

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