The specter of populism continues to haunt Europe. The so-called European establishment has yet to find a meaningful response to counter those on the far left and far right who claim that they, and only they, represent the true will of the people. The latest manifestation of this trend occurred last weekend when a populist far-right anti-immigration party with roots in neo-Nazism had its best-ever showing in Sweden’s general elections. Social democratic parties in particular are in a state of deep crisis—center-left parties are currently part of only six EU governments out of the 28 member states—and have found it difficult to rally voters around their traditional agenda of social justice and redistributive economic policies. As these ideas are taken for granted by the majority of the European public, social democratic parties simply seem to be no longer benefiting from them at the polls.
Consequently, any check on populist parties for the time being needs to come from the center-right. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), currently the senior partner in a coalition government with the populist right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), has offered such a check, both at the polls and in government. Although it has come with a price—the ÖVP has moved to the right with its politics—a government headed by a center-right party is infinitely preferable to a government headed by the extreme populist right in the current political climate. Examining the case of the ÖVP may therefore offer some insights into strategies to tame populist forces in Europe.
A WINNING ELECTORAL STRATEGY
As Austria’s October 2017 elections approached, the FPÖ had consistently led the polls for the past year and was on track to becoming the country’s strongest political force. To boost its own poll numbers, the ÖVP under the then 31-year-old Kurz moved to the right and embraced the anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and tough law-and-order stance of the FPÖin the run-up to the elections. The aim was straightforward: drain the FPÖ of
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