On Sunday, the conservative People's Party (OVP) won the Austrian legislative elections, putting its leader, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, on a path to become the country’s youngest chancellor. The OVP secured over 30 percent of the vote, not only defeating the socialist party (SPO) of incumbent Chancellor Christian Kern but, more important, scoring a major victory over the populist right-wing Freedom Party (FPO), which had one of its best results yet. This was no small feat.
Only six months ago, the OVP trailed in third place behind the SPO and the FPO, which was in the lead with 29 percent of the popular vote. (Indeed, throughout 2016, as well as the last six months of 2015, polls indicated that the FPO had a solid lead over the other two parties, which put FPO leader Heinz Christian in pole position to become the next chancellor.) But in May, after Kurz, who had been serving as foreign minister since 2011, took over leadership of the OVP, the party began to climb in the polls. Kurz performed well during the televised debates, running on a platform that was tough on immigration but pro-market, pro-business, and pro-EU. He also projected experience, highlighting his ministerial position while simultaneously playing the role of an opposition politician with his movement, the New People’s Party, or the New OVP. He campaigned under the slogan “Zeit für Neues” (Time for Something New), a rebranding that gave the old party a facelift while leaving its structure in place.
In a sense, what Kurz did was inject respectability and rationalism into what was at heart a populist platform. He coopted some of the FPO’s ideas on immigration while simultaneously giving the OVP an air of change, à la French President Emanuel Macron’s En Marche! (Onward!). Kurz’s “populism light” embraced cultural pluralism and economic liberalism, but only up to a point. Unlike the FPO, it was not anti-elitist and it neither threatened existing political institutions nor attempted to undermine the rule of law. In
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