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 implement, such as curbing the independence of courts and muzzling critical media, there is little point in opposing its participation in the new Austrian government. In fact, the FPÖ’s program, focused initially on government waste and political gridlock, seemed rather mainstream by the standards of central and eastern Europe. Although the FPÖ still engages in xenophobic rhetoric, it is no longer the only party in Austria to do so and its tone has softened. If it were not for the Freedom Party’s historical connections to Nazism and a cadre of senior officials linked to far-right anti-Semitic student fraternities, it is likely that few international observers would take notice at all.

People protest the swearing in of the new government, Vienna, December 2017.
Heinz-Peter Bader / Reuters

A YOUNG MAN'S GAME

The new government is a product of the ambition, determination, and strategic savvy of its chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who at age 31 is now Europe’s youngest head of government. Despite having served in the Austrian cabinet since 2011—first as state secretary for integration and then as foreign minister—and leading a party that has been in power for over three decades, Kurz managed to present himself as an Austrian Emmanuel Macron, promising to remake the country and introduce a new style of politics.

A polished speaker with a keen focus on his appearance, Kurz took advantage of his cabinet positions by scoring political points where possible while largely keeping away from intra-government squabbles over domestic politics. He also created a large social media following loyal to him personally—his website and campaign posters barely acknowledged his party’s name—and developed extensive networks not only among party insiders but also with business leaders, policy experts, and journalists. He understood earlier than other Austrian politicians that during the migration crisis of 2015, when nearly one million refugees passed through the country, the public’s mood toward immigration had quickly shifted from openness to fear and resentment. From then on, Kurz became an advocate of a tougher line on immigration, frequently criticizing Germany and the European Union while openly admiring the restrictionist policies of Hungarian President Viktor Orban. Kurz also claims credit for having orchestrated the shutdown of the Western Balkan migration route in 2016.

When Kurz became ÖVP leader in May 2017, he immediately called for new elections. Austria’s political context was similar to that which Merkel was confronting in Germany. The ÖVP and Merkel’s Christian Democrats are closely related, and both politicians were dealing with a political environment in which debates about immigration and public safety drowned out the good news about the strong economic recovery. But whereas Merkel opted for a centrist approach, Kurz took his party much further to the right. He did so in part to steal voters away from the FPÖ, which had been leading in opinion polls. Yet he was also motivated by deep political and philosophical differences with the left, whom he blamed for stifling the economy with excessive regulations and high taxes. This ruled out another coalition with the Social Democrats, with whom the ÖVP had governed since 2006.

During the campaign, Kurz presented himself as someone who would move Austria forward, but always remained vague on the substance of this change. On the issues that eventually came to dominate the election, immigration and refugees, Kurz took positions so far to the right that the FPÖ felt compelled to abandon its initially more moderate platform and attack Kurz as a copycat and latecomer. The ÖVP’s new program considers the influx of refugees as a form of illegal immigration, which it wants to stop categorically. The party has conceived an array of measures to make Austria an undesirable destination for refugees, ranging from providing in-kind support rather than cash, and taking money and valuables from asylum seekers to help pay for their processing and care. New protectionist measures propose that foreign workers pay into Austrian social insurance for five years before being able to draw benefits. In fact, even EU citizens would have their labor rights and benefits restricted, relative to Austrian workers.

The ÖVP also devoted extensive attention to what it calls “political Islam,” which it claims poses a great danger to Austrian culture and tradition and leads to the creation of “parallel societies” that serve as a breeding ground for terrorists. In debates, Kurz used xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric, repeatedly speaking out against a “false tolerance” toward Islam. In one memorable exchange on television, Kurz and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache argued over which of them was closer to Orban and would be better able to emulate his policies. Kurz and Strache also talked about moving Austria closer to the Visegrad states, a group of central European countries that are often at odds with Brussels over immigration and liberal democracy. Whereas Strache was very explicit in his demands, Kurz remained more circumspect, leaving it open as to how far he was willing to go when it came to challenging the EU.

The city of Hall in Tirol, Austria, December 2017.
Dominic Ebenbichler / Reuters

WHAT NOW?

After his election victory, Kurz needed to show that he would be able to form a government quickly so as to strike a contrast to both the cantankerous previous cabinet and the unresolved political situation in neighboring Germany. In this he was aided by the FPÖ’s desire to return to government for the first time since 2005. The party had moderated its rhetoric and adopted more substantive positions than in the past. Strache repeatedly visited Israel to counter charges of anti-Semitism, and proved himself willing to work with Austria’s left-leaning president, Alexander Van der Bellen, by proposing acceptable ministerial candidates.

One interesting feature of the new government is that all the FPÖ ministers are political veterans, whereas the ÖVP ministers are for the most part party outsiders personally beholden to Kurz. In the past such ministers were often chosen by powerful party factions to protect their interests and were thus more or less forced upon the party leader. Moreover, an Austrian chancellor, unlike his German counterpart, has no formal authority to interfere with the autonomous decision-making power of cabinet ministers. The current composition of the government, however, will likely allow Kurz to exercise substantial power over his cabinet picks.

The new government’s program suggests that the ÖVP will be able to push through its liberal economic and social policy agenda. Although the details of the economic program are still sketchy, the proposal calls for a reduction in taxes, cuts in the civil service and public administration, as well as restrictions in welfare programs akin to those introduced in Germany over a decade ago and aimed especially at reducing subsistence payments to long-term benefit recipients.

Crucially, all security and intelligence portfolios, both domestic and foreign, will be headed by the FPÖ, including the ministry of the interior, which is tasked with investigating right-wing extremism. The FPÖ will be given control of the portfolios of national security and immigration. (Being able to establish a policy profile in this area has turned out to be a successful strategy for other right-wing populist parties in government, such as the Danish People’s Party.). The Freedom Party was thus able to obtain the ministries of defense, the interior, foreign affairs, civil service administration, infrastructure, as well as social and health affairs.

In a nod to President Van der Bellen and the international community, Kurz moved the EU portfolio from the Foreign Ministry—now controlled by the FPÖ—to the Chancellery. The new government’s agenda nonetheless includes policies such as curbing the influx of laborers from other EU countries, which could lead to conflict between Brussels and Vienna. The crucial question is how Austria would respond if challenged on these initiatives. Would the government acquiesce to EU demands or escalate? If the latter, would the ÖVP and FPÖ exploit the opportunity for domestic political mobilization while aligning Austria more closely with euroskeptical countries such as Poland and Hungary? We may get a first indication of Austria’s future direction when it assumes the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union next year. For now it is simply too soon to tell. 

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