He is young, he is ambitious, and he’s in a hurry.
Sebastian Kurz will become the youngest prime minister of any EU country ever after the thirty-one-year-old leader of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) won the country’s national election with 31 percent on October 15.
The meteoric rise of Kurz has a lot to do with him being young and handsome, energetic and friendly.
Nobody doubts that Kurz is one of the big political talents of Austria. Although he couldn’t even get a job as a diplomat in his own foreign ministry because he didn’t finish his university studies, Austrians trust him to become the country’s next chancellor. Almost a third of the electorate believed that Kurz wanted to change “the old system” in which the ÖVP and SPÖ called the shots over jobs, managers, political posts, and major appointments. Yet Kurz, who has been in government for the past seven years, first as secretary of state of integration and later as foreign minister, didn’t seem in a hurry to shake up the system.
There’s little doubt that Austria’s grand coalition under the leadership of the Social Democrat Christian Kern was a tired affair (a bit like Germany), but it was by no means unsuccessful.
The country of almost nine million people is one of the richest and safest countries in the world. Austria is the fourth wealthiest EU member state, after Luxemburg, Ireland, and the Netherlands, according to its gross domestic product. Unemployment is slightly up, at 6 percent, but this is still lower than the EU average of 7.6 percent. Vienna has been named the city with the best living conditions in the world for eight years in a row. In short: the grand coalition of Social Democrats and Conservatives has been quite successful, even with the influx of 130,000 refugees during 2015 and 2016, when Austria became briefly part of Angela Merkel’s “Willkommenspolitik.”
If Kurz would now decide to continue in a coalition with the Social Democrats, his voters may be disappointed. A majority voted for a shift to the right.
Also, Kurz campaigned on a classic right-wing platform of slimming down the bureaucracy, lowering taxes, pushing for austerity, and campaigning against gay marriage.
The ÖVP leader also pulled his party further to the right on immigration policy with harsh populist slogans. Kurz wants to close the migrant routes to Europe, impose a cap on benefit payments to refugees, and pay other benefits to foreigners only after they have lived in Austria for five years. It is therefore ideologically easier for him to govern in coalition with the Freedom Party than with the Social Democrats.
The drastic swing to the right was made easier, as the author Franz Schuh put it, because Kurz looks like the “Freedom Party with a human face.”
Curiously, Austrians have stopped discussing the politically-extreme past of the possible new vice primeminister Heinz-Christian Strache. The forty-eight-year-old dental technician has been the leader of the Freedom Party since 2005. As Kurz and Kern both hinted that they would be prepared to go into a coalition with the Freedom Party under certain circumstances, no “big” party has had any interest in raising the stories of Strache’s student years, when he engaged in neo-Nazi games—so-called “Wehrsportübungen”—in the Austrian woods.
How, then, will Europe react to a governing coalition with the far-right FPÖ? The last time Austria produced a coalition between the People’s Party and Freedom Party in 2000, the EU imposed political sanctions on Austria. The largely symbolic diplomatic quarantine ended after six months amidst uneasy feelings on all sides. It is unlikely that anything drastic would happen this time, should Strache be invited into government.
Just look at the region.
Poland is currently governed by the far-right Law and Justice Party and Hungary is under the quasi-authoritarian premiership of Viktor Orbán. Neither of these countries are officially shunned. But if Austria, politically speaking, goes “Eastern European,” the divide between Western and Eastern Europe, with their different stance on far-right policies in government, will certainly deepen.
If Kurz indeed forms a government with the Freedom Party, he will have to choose his ministers carefully.
The FPÖ would like Norbert Hofer as foreign minister or president of the parliament. Hofer, who came close to being elected as Austria’s president in December 2016, joined a far-right fraternity in his student years. It’s hard to think that Austria, which takes over the EU presidency in the second half of 2018, would be well regarded under such a foreign minister.
But what would change in practical terms under a far-right government?
Kurz and Strache share tough views on immigration. In practice, this may mean closing the borders to asylum seekers and cracking down on radical Islamist activities in Austria. This would bring applause from Hungary and from far-right parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
In economic terms, Kurz could find EU partners for some of his economic ideas. While “neo-liberalism” has become a questionable term in countries like Great Britain or Greece, France—under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron—will be glad to have another country also trying to slim the state bureaucracy and public sector.
Yet standing back, one has to ask how big the chances are for a successful far-right coalition?
The last time the FPÖ joined the People’s Party in government (between 2000 and 2006), the country was left with huge corruption scandals. Some FPÖ politicians have been since convicted for fraud, corruption, involvement in National Socialist activities, or are awaiting prosecution.
Despite that, Sebastian Kurz could establish a coalition government with the FPÖ, but only in the hope that his far-right partners will not rear their ugly heads too high.
There’s no guarantee about that.
Tessa Szyszkowitz is an Austrian journalist and historian. She writes for the Austrian news magazine Profil and other publications.