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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.
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 its base of support. The tactic worked. With 31.5 percent of the votes, the ÖVP beat not only the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) but also the FPÖ. Notably, however, Kurz did not attempt to “outpopulize” the populists but won on a populist-lite platform that promoted economic liberalism and cultural pluralism (paired with a deep-rooted sense of national identity).
Kurz’s populism lite not only helped him gain voters who previously cast their ballot for the FPÖ (168,000) as well as for two other far-right, populist parties (158,000), but also managed to attract 84,000 votes from former Green Party supporters, 60,000 votes from the New Austria and Liberal Forum (a liberal party), and 121,000 nonvoters, including first-time voters, from the previous election. Indeed, Kurz’s campaign contained more hopeful political messages than did the polarizing FPÖ’s, emphasizing, for example, that by working together, “we can return our country back to the top.” Unlike most populists, he has never tried to delegitimize his political opposition.
Other factors contributed to the ÖVP’s victory besides its rightward shift. Kurz’s personal charisma and rhetorical skills certainly played a role. Indeed, his campaign in many areas was devoid of concrete policy proposals and lacked both depth and scope. Years before the 2017 election, Kurz had already become one of Austria’s most popular politicians, mainly because of his early critique of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the 2015 European migrant crisis and his support for a 2016-brokered deal to close European borders to refugees despite pushback from Berlin. Kurz’s tough stance on illegal migration made him immensely popular among the Austrian electorate.
Furthermore, by announcing the creation of a political movement (Bewegung) and a revamped ÖVP prior to the beginning of his campaign, Kurz, a career politician and one of the longest-serving members of the unpopular SPÖ-ÖVP coalition government, managed to distance himself from the political status quo. The career politician suddenly became a candidate who stood for change and who fundamentally wanted to reform and reenergize Austria’s political landscape. Yet where the FPÖ stood for radical change, Kurz presented a more moderate pace of change that did not threaten pillars such as the country’s EU membership, independent judiciary, or free and independent media.
In December 2017, Kurz and the ÖVP formed a coalition government with the FPÖ as its junior partner to replace the deeply unpopular SPÖ-ÖVP grand coalition government, which had been in power for a decade and had become synonymous with political standstill. (According to a fall 2017 poll, only 15 percent of Austrian voters would have favored a new grand coalition government.) Unlike in 2000, when the FPÖ—founded by former SS officers and members of the Nazi Party—last entered the government and Austria faced punitive measures by the EU as a consequence, this time there have been no large public protests and only a few (informal) calls to boycott the new governing coalition in Vienna. This has been partially the result of a well-executed communication strategy by the government based on careful message controlling, but it also reflects the general move to the right of the European political electorate.
To be sure, the FPÖ’s accession to power has come with a series of troubling events. In January 2018, news broke that an FPÖ leader, Udo Landbauer, was purportedly tied to the publication of an anti-Semitic songbook, and Herbert Kickl, the new Austrian interior minister and an FPÖ member, announced his desire in January to “concentrate” asylum seekers in one place. That this happened the same year Austria commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss, or annexation by Nazi Germany, is especially embarrassing for the ÖVP.
Meanwhile, the FPÖ now controls the Interior and Defense Ministries and with them much of Austria’s security apparatus, including its intelligence agencies. The political opposition sees its worst fears reflected in a putative scandal involving the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, Austria’s domestic intelligence agency, which involved the illegal seizure of agency intelligence on right-wing extremist groups in Austria (possibly including FPÖ members) during an illegal (according to Vienna’s higher regional court) police raid ordered by FPÖparty members. This possibly came about as a result of actions by Kickl, who purportedly has been trying to appoint a new head by discrediting the incumbent director of the organization.
With the FPÖ as the inexperienced junior partner in power, however, the ÖVP has been able to act as a force of restraint.
With the FPÖ as the inexperienced junior partner in power, however, the ÖVP has been able to act as a force of restraint. Indeed, there seems to be genuinely little danger that the FPÖ will institutionalize Hungarian-style illiberal democracy in the country. (In a September 10 television interview, Kurz stated that ÖVP members of the European Parliament would vote in support of triggering sanctions against Hungary under the EU’s Article 7 as a result of Budapest’s violations of EU values and the rule of law.) There have been no attacks on the independent judiciary or legislative branch of government. And although the FPÖ has repeatedly accused the Austrian public service broadcaster ORF of a left-wing bias and is pushing to reform it, ÖVP pressure purportedly led Austrian Vice Chancellor and FPÖleader Heinz-Christian Strache to apologize and pay damages to the country’s top news anchor, Armin Wolf, after accusing him and the ORF of lying. The FPÖ did appoint Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who has been critical of the press and who invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to her wedding this summer, but in response the ÖVP simply relocated the ministry’s most important department dealing with Austria’s relations with the European Union to the ÖVP-run chancellery.
According to a study compiled by the Mauthausen Committee Austria, right-wing extremism, including cases of anti-Semitism, has increased since the FPÖ entered government in December 2017. Nonetheless, the FPÖ has reduced its extremist rhetoric. Strache, following pressure by the ÖVP and Kurz, publicly condemned anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in a speech given in front of a European far-right audience this January. The FPÖ has also tried to gradually distance itself from other extreme-right elements in Austrian society. For example, it no longer supports the extreme-right publication Aula, which as a result had to cease operations in June of this year. Under ÖVP pressure, the FPÖ leadership around Strache has begun to clean house, although it should be noted that some extremist members such as parliamentary leader Johann Gudenus—who, among other things, endorsed the Russian occupation of Crimea, publicly railed against LGBT people, and endorsed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around the U.S.-Hungarian billionaire George Soros—have so far remained in their positions.
There are many other policy areas where Kurz and the ÖVP have tempered the FPÖ’s populism. The ÖVP curtailed FPÖ plans to weaken representative democracy by insisting on more direct democratic mechanisms such as legally binding plebiscites without parliamentary approval. And being the ÖVP’s junior partner has forced the FPÖ to move away from its economic populist platform and support the ÖVP’s liberal economic agenda. This has included supporting the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, an EU-Canada free trade treaty, which the FPÖhad opposed for years, as well as assenting to a loosening of labor laws advocated by the ÖVP. With the ÖVP continuing to support EU integration, the FPÖ also had to compromise on its decades-long insistence of cutting Austrian financial contributions to the EU budget.
At first glance, it is only on immigration that the parties see eye to eye. Both the ÖVP and the FPÖ have been touting a tough line on illegal immigration and jointly have cut funding for integration initiatives such as German-language lessons. They have also accelerated the expulsion of undocumented immigrants from Austrian soil while further restricting access to the Austrian labor market. Even within this sphere, however, the FPÖ’s most extreme policy proposals such as a total immigration shutdown, which the party has been advocating since the leadership of Jörg Haider in the 1990s, have not prevailed. The ÖVP also believes in “integration through effort,” despite the FPÖ’s continuing insistence that integration of refugees is simply not possible.
As the political analyst Thomas Hofer told me in an interview: “Whereas the FPÖ appeared to be for walls and closing off Austria totally, the ÖVP advocates for reforming a weak immigration system but not throwing overboard humanity entirely—and certainly not the interconnectedness of Austria as a country in the heart of Europe.” Notably, Kurz’s idea to create a European version of the Australian model of migration, centered around the plan of building migrant processing centers in North Africa in an attempt to deter people from crossing the Mediterranean Sea with the help of human traffickers, has been widely accepted within the EU and has become a mainstream position. Given its need to uphold Christian democratic principles to retain its core support, the ÖVP most likely will continue to push back on the most extreme FPÖ migration proposals.
There is no doubt that the FPÖ has been losing support from its core constituencies. (Strache, for example, has been criticized by various alternative media outlets for his alleged endorsement of mainstream politics.) Although it had a solid lead over the ÖVP and the SPÖ in polls throughout 2016 and into fall 2017, the party has remained stuck in third place since entering into a coalition government. This is partially the result of the ÖVP’s triangulation strategy during the 2017 elections as well as the many compromises—the most damaging word to populists—that the FPÖ has had to make since forming the coalition. In short, the FPÖis no longer the political powerhouse it used to be.
Austria’s example shouldn’t justify an open-ended call for allowing extreme-right-wing populists into government or for more establishment parties to copy their most populist platforms in order to disarm them. Although this model has been working in Austria, it is an imperfect solution that risks long-term damage to democracy, especially in countries with a weaker political opposition, a weaker civil society, and a political system not based on proportional representation. Still, with Europe having decisively shifted to the right of the political spectrum, center-right parties may be the establishment’s last best hope to stem the tide of populism.