The western world has staged important elections in the past year, including the snap general election in the UK, the weakening position of Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor and the election of pro-European Emmanuel Macron as French president. Another country had its snap election yesterday, though it looks to have been a political masterstroke for the incumbent People’s Party and it might also change how politics is viewed in Europe.
Indeed, Austria’s clear winner is the leader of the conservative People’s Party and previous foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz. It’s not only the fact that he took charge of the party in May, nor that he’s pushed the party towards right-wing policies, including shutting down migrant routes to Europe, but that he is only 31, making him the youngest leader in Europe, which makes it a significant result. Further to that, Mr Kurz (pictured below) was in fact the cause of this election as he refused to keep on the coalition with the Social Democrats.
Although in June, Theresa May was herself trapped by this kind of process, Kurz won as poll projections turned out to be accurate, and his party won with 31.6% of the votes. Yet the biggest question was which party would come second: the ruling Social Democrats or the far-right Freedom Party? The latter was fortunately defeated at the presidency last December but clearly stood a chance to return to government 10 years after leaving it. This is far more worrying with the history of the party as it was founded by ex-Nazis at the end of the war, and considering the breakthrough of the nationalist, far-right AfD party in Germany last month.
The Social Democrats and Chancellor Christian Kern, should be quickly pushed into the opposition after a promising campaign that has been shut down by several scandals. Those included allegations that the party paid for websites publishing xenophobic and antisemitic theories in order to discredit his challengers. Indeed, the ruling party only won 26.7% of the vote, coming a close third behind the Freedom Party who did indeed claim second place with 27.4%. Also, as the People’s Party won by a great margin, this makes impossible any attempt to rule by the Social Democrats, as Kurz has shared publicly his hostility for another ‘grand coalition’.
As the right is now ruling Austria, policies will certainly fundamentally change and take an anti-migrant direction. Indeed, Mr Kurz wants to cut benefits for all foreigners, shut Islamic kindergarten, lower taxes and attempt to keep the European Union out of domestic politics, although it should not be forgotten that Austria was one of the more welcoming countries for refugees two years ago. He declared shortly after winning: ‘I’ll fight with all my strength for change in this country’.
A coalition between the conservatives and the far-right party is not unprecedented. Both parties ruled together between 2000 and 2007. This period of rule sparked protests all over the country. Yet, as nationalism is rising in popularity in the Western world, such protests may be unlikely to happen again.