By Anthony Tokarz
In March 2017, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on his reelection campaign that he was playing in the “quarterfinals” of the fight against populism. He went on to describe the French presidential election as the “semifinals” and the German general election, which took place Sunday September 24, as the “finals.” This Diplomatic Envoy correspondent believes Rutte spoke prematurely. Those elections were just the qualifiers, and it will be Austria’s October 15 general election which defines the coming decade of European politics.
Although the populist candidates failed to take their nation’s highest office in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, they nonetheless made gains in their respective parliaments. In the Netherlands, Rutte’s party lost eight seats and Wilders’ gained five. In France, Macron’s new party picked up 350 seats, and Le Pen six. In Germany, where populism’s electoral power shows most vividly, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost sixty-five seats and the far-right Alternative for Germany gained ninety-four. This broke the grand coalition of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats. This will force Merkel to form a “Jamaican Coalition” – so named because the traditional colors of the parties involved are the same as those on the Jamaican flag – between her own party, the Green Party, and the classical liberal Free Democratic Party.
Merkel, like every other party leader, refuses to work with the far-right AfD party to avoid its dark historical overtones. However, the success of the right-wing populists in all three elections attests to populism’s resonance across Europe. The Guardian reports that the far right, especially in Germany, has attained shocking success in dominating national political discourse through concerted efforts to manipulate internet fora. In the two weeks leading up to the German election, #Afd was within the top two trending hashtags on Twitter. The far right’s commitment to its message and success in hijacking internet culture to disseminate its talking points and agitate for its desired change actively encourages sister movements in different countries. As the clouds of populism now gather over Austria, October’s election will gauge whether Austrians see them as bringing renewing rains or a hurricane of hate.
The man at the center of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP), and central figure in the unfolding electoral drama, is Sebastian Kurz, who at 27 became Austria’s foreign minister and now, at 31, looks poised to become its Chancellor. After Kurz assumed control of the OVP, he consolidated most major decision-making functions to the party leader, i.e. himself. His self-constructed image is a conservative version of Emmanuel Macron, and he has reoriented his party so far right that it and the far right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), which has its roots in 1950’s Neo-Nazism, now have notably fewer differences. The veritable boy wonder, whom much of the media has taken to calling “wunderwuzzi’ or “wiz kid”, tries to balance support for the European Union with condemnation of its recent immigration policy. In 2016, Kurz took credit for closing the Balkan migrant route, which migrants from Turkey used to get from Greece to Germany via Austria. His party recently succeeded in legislating a ban of the burqa, banning the foreign funding of mosques by slashing migrant benefits, and shuttering Islamic schools that he accuses of building “parallel societies.” Kurz intends to build further on this success. Though the OVP’s platform might strike the Western ear as draconian, the Austrians rallying behind it do so in the hopes of protecting their livelihoods and culture.
As of September 24, the OVP leads the nationwide polls at 33.1%, followed by a tie between the FPO and the incumbent Social Democratic Party (SPO) at 24.3%. Kurz’s newly refashioned party benefits from his youthful charisma, oratorical ability, and willingness to make sensitive issues, such as immigration, central to his campaign. The FPO has already made overtures to the OVP by adopting its stance on economic reform, which includes lowering taxes, restricting entitlements for non-citizens, and forswearing any form of economic redistribution.
Fabio Wolkenstein of the European Politics and Polity Center at the London School of Economics speculates that the most likely outcome will be a coalition between the two conservative parties. According to Wolkenstein, the Austrian right will emerge strengthened and emboldened from the general election in all of the likely outcomes. Even if the SPO performs better than expected and takes second or third place, it will in all likelihood replace its leader, Chancellor Christian Kern, with Defense Minister Peter Doskozil, who shares many of the OVP and SPO’s views on immigration and border security.
The triumph of the Austrian right will align Austria with the Visegrad states, a grouping which includes Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Hungary and Poland have spearheaded the Euro-skeptic populist movement that is gaining support throughout EU member states for its defense of national sovereignty, border integrity, and cultural conservationism. Furthermore, most of the Balkan states, with the exception of Greece and Albania, also lean right, according to Stephen Wolf of Daily Kos Elections. Kurz’s victory would thus shift the political center of Central and Eastern Europe to the right, and most likely encourage right-wing populist movements throughout the continent. Furthermore, the presence of a unified conservative voting bloc in the EU Parliament could precipitate the elections in Croatia and Bulgaria, and right-wing candidates could potentially exert unprecedented influence over the direction of the European Union. This election may even set the stage for World War I hero Józef Piłsudski’s Intermarium plan, an alliance of conservative states spanning the European continent from the Baltic to the Adriatic Seas.
Your correspondent expects Kurz’s OVP to win the most seats in the Austrian parliament, followed by the far-right FPO. That would catapult Kurz to the Chancellorship and result in a unified right-wing coalition. At the very least, this victory will benefit Poland and Hungary, which have come under scrutiny from the European Commission, and deliver a stinging rebuke to Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, who has attempted to bring to heel the EU’s recalcitrant eastern members. Kurz has his finger firmly on the pulse of nativist sentiment—the same that enabled Brexit and swept Donald J Trump into the US Presidency—and has shown himself both skilled and ruthless in exploiting it. Observers may as well view Austria’s October 15 general election as a referendum on the direction of the European Union.