When the world turns its attention to Austria, and if the news is not about Vienna being attested the highest quality of life, then it would most likely be about the far-right party coming to power. On October 15, 2017, Austria held its national legislative election which produces its next Chancellor, the head of government. The following paragraphs will offer an insight into the impacts of the results on both Vienna and the EU as the far-right looms over Austria’s future government.

Source: orf.at/wahl

There are but a few coalition options following the election results. It’s almost certain that the incumbent Chancellor Christian Kern of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) will lose his office after his party finished second. The top candidate to succeed his role is the 31-year-old Foreign Affairs Minister and election winner Sebastian Kurz of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP).

The Coalition Outlook

Election winner Kurz (ÖVP) will likely overlook the second-placed SPÖ after a long and “dirty campaign” has left very little sympathy between Austria’s two traditional ruling parties. The campaign saw the emergence of fake Facebook pages which pretended to support candidate Kurz, but in fact sought to attribute jingoistic and anti-Semitic sentiments to his campaign. It seems that the affair has lastingly damaged the working relationship between the two parties.
Therefore, the most likely coalition looks to be between Kurz’s conservative ÖVP and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ); with the latter party reaching a historic high under the reign of current party leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

This is partly due to the fact that polled voters of ÖVP and FPÖ each favor the other party as their respective coalition partners. Furthermore, there are stark ideological similarities between them, especially regarding immigration and economic policies, such as benefit cuts for refugees and tax cuts for businesses. In fact, for Strache, the FPÖ-leader, the similarities were so striking that not only did he accuse his opponent of having plagiarized his proposals, he also cynically claimed the ÖVP’s 31.6% victory as a testimony to his own party’s voter appeal. All in all, what would a coalition mean for Austria and in consequence, for Europe?

In such a scenario, Kurz would become the Chancellor and Strache, the vice-chancellor and Minister of Inner Affairs; at least so Strache and his Freedom Party demand. This prospect has evoked considerable public opposition in light of the neo-Nazi past of Strache. It also remains to be seen whether Austria’s President would inaugurate certain Freedom Party politicians as Ministers of Inner or Foreign Affairs due to their far-right affiliation. When the Freedom Party entered into a coalition with the ÖVP last time, in February, 2000 — before Strache took over the party’s helm in 2005 — the EU imposed sanctions on Austria for the very same reason.

While the People’s Party of Kurz is pro-European, the Freedom Party has made Öxit – an Austrian exit of the EU a possibility. Both have been vocal in their support for Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and have criticised the EU for its immigration policy. During the campaign, Kurz has repeatedly underlined his instrumental role as Foreign Minister in closing the Balkan route in 2016 and furthermore promised to close the Mediterranean route in response to large numbers of migrants reaching the EU from North Africa.

Characteristics of the Campaign

The results reflect that questions related to migration played a decisive part for Austrian voters during the electoral campaign. Whether linked to criminality or to a larger debate about having a merit-based social benefit system and cutting allocations to refugees, politicians largely adopted the dominant framing of the issue and sought to address as well as exploit the existing fears among the population.

Smaller parties were the losers of a run-up which was mostly mediatised as a race between three individuals – the leaders of SPÖ, ÖVP and FPÖ – rather than of competing ideas and solutions.
Furthermore, the party as an institution was deemed so unpopular by spin doctors that the term movement was often employed instead. Election winner Kurz managed to transform the image of what was widely perceived as an old men’s party into a post-institutional rejuvenation movement with himself – the 31-year-old Foreign Minister – as the epitome of the message he sought to convey. This paradigm of change was in fact so dominant during this campaign that two new party colours were created: transparent and turquoise (the latter being painted over an initial black) in order to paint over unwanted legacies.

Even after a former Green Party leader was elected President last year, the Green Party failed to pass the 4%-threshold in this election. While this is partly due to the aforementioned dynamic, it was mostly due to a cascade of party infighting and secessions.

A longer road to Brussels?

As a coalition seems to be most likely between the People’s and the Freedom Party, would the EU again consider sanctions as in 2000, in response to far-right politicians in the ranks of a Member States’ government?

This scenario seems unlikely, as the Freedom Party has been largely accommodated in Austria’s mainstream political culture over the last decade and has thereby become socially acceptable, a development which many notes with distress given the neo-Nazi past of some party functionaries.

With regard to Brussels, Austria could start orientating itself towards the EU-positions of its Eastern neighbours, adopting tougher narratives and policies against “illegal immigration” for border security and national sovereignty. However, Austria will assume the Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2018 and the new government will therefore need to adopt a conciliatory tenor, a task which could be complicated by the appointment of right-wing, Euro-skeptic ministers.

In his first encounter with the election winner Kurz, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker urged him to form a pro-European government and, rather ironically suggested during the press session that Kurz should position himself on the right side of the photo shoot. Initially, Juncker attempted to kiss Kurz on the cheek who seemed to evade the gesture. Only time will tell whether this incident will become a metaphor for Austria’s future within the EU.

Stefan Pfalzer is the 2017-18 EST Ambassador to Austria. Feel free to contact him at austria@esthinktank.com.