Austria’s Sebastian Kurz has a choice – it is huge and it affects us all

The young conservative leader can make a deal with the centre-left – or a far-right party with links to neo-Nazis. 

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Sebastian Kurz has a choice. Having won the largest share of the vote in Austria’s general election on Sunday, Kurz’s party – the conservative-leaning People’s Party (ÖVP) – must now begin to negotiate a coalition. His choice is stark: the only parties that can provide a majority are the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) or the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). The FPÖ are most notable for their openly Islamophobic, anti-immigrant policies and their close links with the secretive, neo-Nazi-associated Burschenschafter group.

Austria is the latest country to be on the front-line of Europe’s growing ideological divide between cosmopolitans and nativists. Kurz, at 31 years old, and poised to be the youngest head of state in the world, must choose which side to take. He can either reinforce Austria’s western orientation along with the values of liberalism and progress, or he can reorient Austria eastwards, towards the nationalistic and xenophobic regimes of Hungary and Poland. In doing so, he can tip the balance in a Europe that is already fraught with economic, social, and political problems.

The Kurz moment

Since 1945, Austria has been a placid country, having largely been governed by a Grand Coalition - an arrangement between the ÖVP and the SPÖ to rule through broad consensus. The FPÖ had little influence.

Things began to change in the 1990s. The FPÖ’s rise in election results since 2002 had two driving forces. The first was a changing political climate, with immigration forefront in voters’ attention. The second was the ineffectual way in which the Austrian political system handled crises. By the tumultuous times of today – not least with the refugee crisis – the Grand Coalition’s paralysis and infighting has made the status quo unappealing to many voters. Accordingly, there was a sense of inevitability among voters that this year's election would see the surge of the far right.

In May, the ÖVP was beset by low poll ratings, internal bickering, and the prospect of yet another stalemate with the SPÖ. When the party’s vice chancellor quit, Kurz saw his moment.

Ambitious and precociously talented, Kurz quit a law degree to enter politics. In 2013, at the age of 27, he was named foreign minister. In 2016, he led the closure of the western Balkan route, which hundreds of thousands of displaced people had been using to travel from Turkey to northern Europe. His popularity was such that after he announced his desire to become leader, the ÖVP’s rating vaulted from 21 per cent to 35 per cent.

With the ÖVP weakened, Kurz made his leadership conditional on the party giving leaders unprecedented powers. He was duly elected head of the ÖVP, winning almost 99 per cent of votes at the party conference. Meanwhile, changes to the party’s statute gave him the power to determine party policy, the power to create a list of candidates for election, and the power to bypass various entrenched interests within the party.

This laid the groundwork for the beginning of Kurz’s "Bewegung" (movement). He has been compared to Emmanuel Macron both for his liberal economic views and for his ability to leverage his personality into a political movement. Indeed, many voters chose the ÖVP for Kurz’s personality rather than for the party’s ideology. Tellingly, Kurz rebranded the ÖVP the "Sebastian Kurz list – the new People’s Party". Their traditional colour – black – was also changed to turquoise to project a brighter image. Most opinion polls had the ÖVP in the lead going into the election.

The final result is strongly subject to postal votes, of which there are 780,000 still to be counted – a record number. Still, statistics show that the ÖVP has won 31.5 per cent of the vote – an increase of 7.51 percentage points on 2013. Fully six of Austria’s nine federal states voted for the ÖVP. The SPÖ has gained 26.9 per cent of the vote, making gains in cities such as Vienna and Graz, but overall not managing to improve on their previous performance, even after having picked up voters defecting from the Greens. In fact, the SPÖ appears to have lost roughly as many votes to the FPÖ as it gained from the Greens. For their part, the FPÖ won 26 per cent of the vote, an increase of 5.5 percentage points on 2013. Notably they won the most votes within the 16-29 age group, with 30 per cent.

Heart of darkness

For now, Kurz sits atop Austrian politics. But he must make his choice. Though he has claimed that he will discuss forming a government with all contenders, it is unlikely he will simply rehash the Grand Coalition with the SPÖ after having come so far. Neither will he forget the bad blood that had built up between the two parties.

This leaves him with the FPÖ. With his hawkish approach to the migrant crisis, Kurz has shown that they could govern together. Whether or not this will rile traditional ÖVP voters remains to be seen.

The FPÖ are unlikely to be easy coalition partners. Their platform is openly and uncompromisingly Islamophobic and their leader Heinz-Christian Strache has years of experience in politics. Kurz may be unable to restrain Strache, and prevent the FPÖ unleashing their hostile and dangerous policies. In an indication of what may come, the FPÖ have already demanded that any coalition deal must see them having more say on foreign policy, including on Europe. That they are broadly Eurosceptic is not insignificant – they would be champions of Brexit. Though Kurz’s chief red-line on agreeing a coalition is Austria remaining an active player in the EU, working with the FPÖ is a gamble Kurz appears willing to take.

Controversially, from 2000 to 2005, the FPÖ governed in a coalition with the ÖVP. The EU issued short-lived sanctions against Austria, but the coalition destroyed itself after two years. From 2002 to 2005, the FPÖ remained in government, but was weak and divided. Whether or not this happens again depends on the extent to which Kurz is able to temper the FPÖ’s more extreme ideas. Evidence suggests he may be less concerned with this than the ÖVP of the early 2000s. Such a position would allow the FPÖ to retain their core supporters by showing that they are acting on their mandate in a way they could not during their previous stint in government.

Kurz is playing a high-stakes game. Personalising the ÖVP and vesting so much power in himself while apparently being content to work with a party as provocative as the FPÖ has the potential to be disastrous. Not only does it normalise far-right politics and offer a platform the FPÖ are unfit to occupy, it could also ruin Kurz’s career and see the further unraveling of European ideals. Sebastian Kurz has a choice – it is huge and it affects us all.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.