A Populist Victory in Austria

The Freedom Party Enters Government

Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in Vienna, December 2017. Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

On December 18, 2017 a new Austrian government took office, consisting of a coalition between the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ). When the FPÖ last entered government, in 2000, Austria became an international pariah. Israel withdrew its ambassador, and many countries—including all 14 EU member states at that time—imposed bilateral sanctions on the government in Vienna. Popular protests in the Austrian capital were so severe that the new cabinet could enter and exit the inauguration ceremony only through underground passages. This time, both the international and domestic reactions were much more muted.

The FPÖ’s success is a reminder that populism is still a potent force in European politics. In Germany, gains by the Alternative for Germany party spoiled Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chance at a majority government; in Norway, a strong showing by the populist Progress Party allowed it to return to government as part of a coalition. In Italy, two major populist parties—the Five-Star Movement and the Northern League—are competing to oust the current government in next May’s elections. And in Austria, FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer nearly won the presidency in 2016 with 46.2 percent of the vote. This was the best result for a right-wing populist party in Western Europe to date. Even when populists are not as successful, as in the Dutch and French elections this year, they are major contenders for national government. Across Europe, populists are no longer content with being outsiders and playing the role of protest parties. Instead they have arrived at the center of national politics by making credible bids for political leadership.

The relative calm that has accompanied the FPÖ’s entry into government is, moreover, a measure of how much Europe has changed since 2000. In nearly every European country there are now parties with agendas similar to that of the Freedom Party. With governments in Poland and Hungary carrying out the kinds of illiberal policies that the FPÖ was once suspected of wanting to

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