Elephants in the Room

The Battle for Austria’s Right Is a Harbinger for the Rest of Europe

In Vienna, the center-right and populist right are vying for power. All of Europe is watching.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Freedom Party, give a joint press conference in Vienna on Oct. 25. (Helmut Fohringer/AFP/Getty Images)
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Freedom Party, give a joint press conference in Vienna on Oct. 25. (Helmut Fohringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Sankt Paul in the Lavanttal is a sleepy town nestled into the foothills of the southern Austrian Alps. By any measure, it is an idyllic hinterland — a region where apiaries and orchards crisscross brooks as clear as glass. At its heart sits a 900-year old Benedictine abbey, affectionately known as the treasure chest of the state of Carinthia, and a renowned private school that educated such Austrian legends as the actor Paul Hörbiger and the war reporter Friedrich Orter. If you listen closely, you will hear the occasional rumor that a young Josip Broz Tito studied there, too.

Sankt Paul is a town without problems, enmeshed in a relatively robust economy. And yet, in Austria’s recent elections, it voted overwhelmingly for the populist-protest Freedom Party (FPÖ), along with the rest of the state. As elsewhere in the West, the explanation lies in the widening gulf between elite expectations and rural mores. Unlike elsewhere, however, this is not the first time the country has experienced a surge in populism. In 1999, the FPÖ’s Jörg Haider shot to international fame after taking second place in national elections. Two years later, after governing with the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), his party was in shambles.

As the leader of the ÖVP, Sebastian Kurz is now negotiating a government with the FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache, just as his predecessor Wolfgang Schüssel did with Jörg Haider. Both Kurz and Strache would do well to recall the success and failure of their predecessors. The test for them is who will emerge triumphant in this potential coalition: the traditional center-right or the new populist rebellion. The outcome will serve as a roadmap for the rest of Europe.

I grew up in Sankt Paul during the Balkan wars — a time when more than a few Bosnians sought refuge in the area. This was the era of Jörg Haider, the mesmerizing and omnipresent populist who made restrictions on immigration and crackdowns on crime perennial campaign promises. Haider railed against the clubby Viennese establishment and stoked Euroscepticism through appeals to Austrian patriotism. For his efforts, he was rewarded with one election victory after another, powering a quarter-century long rise that seemed destined to end in his chancellorship.

But then came Wolfgang Schüssel. After the 1999 federal election, Schüssel and Haider negotiated a coalition government between the ÖVP and FPÖ that elevated Schüssel to the chancellorship and legitimized the FPÖ. After nominating loyalists to key posts, Haider withdrew to Carinthia, where he chose to bide his time as governor. Schüssel, however, had other plans than to make way for a Haider chancellorship. Once in power, he took command of the government and drove an agenda that overshadowed the FPÖ, stunting Haider’s rise and leading to divisions between Haider and his ministers. By 2002, the ÖVP had ascended to the top of Austrian politics while the FPÖ imploded in bouts of infighting.

During a visit to Sankt Paul straddling last month’s election, the signs for the FPÖ’s resurgence were everywhere. In the Benedictine abbey, Syrian families strolled about while bored Middle Eastern youth hung around drinking and smoking outside a new asylum center for unaccompanied minors — located next to a local grade school. One childhood friend, now a police officer in the area, bemoaned the spike in crime in the area. None of this is lost on the local population.

For years, the ruling class in Vienna has not been up to the task. On election night, at the Socialist Party (SPÖ) headquarters of outgoing Chancellor Christian Kern, functionaries chanted “Yes we Kern!” to celebrate the party’s showing. To be sure, the SPÖ’s 26.9 percent was a good result that matched their vote total from four years ago. It only managed to do so, however, by pulling cosmopolitan Viennese from the Greens, who were annihilated. As its tone-deaf election night slogan suggests, the SPÖ has lost large swaths of its rural, working-class base to the FPÖ. My cousin’s husband, a longstanding working-class socialist, summarized: “The FPÖ is the new worker’s party.”

With the socialists sidelined, Kurz and Strache will now give battle for the future of Austria. Unlike Haider, Strache will insist on joining the government himself as vice chancellor and, most likely, minister of the interior. This will accomplish two goals at once: ensuring more cohesion among the FPÖ while avoiding marginalization on its key issues. Through high-profile initiatives, the FPÖ will work to leapfrog the ÖVP over the next several years.

For his part, Kurz will seek to rerun the playbook of Schüssel, with whom he is in regular contact. Like Schüssel, Kurz will present himself as the face of the government, seeking credit for systematic reforms that bypass the FPÖ’s publicity stunts while coopting their conservative content. In effect, Kurz hopes to rob the FPÖ of initiative. Already, this is playing out on the battleground of Europe.

In March, European Union Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker presented a white paper on the future of Europe in which he outlined five possible scenarios for the EU’s future direction. Kurz and Strache have both embraced scenario 4, “Doing Less More Efficiently,” presaging an Austrian shift toward the Visegrad bloc, a set of eastern European states linked through history with Vienna and skeptical of the EU. The upshot will be a brake on French President Emmanuel Macron’s reform project of more European integration.

To carry out the task, both the FPÖ and ÖVP will press for the foreign ministry, a post in which Kurz has shined. The FPÖ would like to see Norbert Hofer, its charismatic presidential candidate from last year, take the post. But for the ÖVP, the preferred candidate is reportedly Elisabeth Köstinger, which brings us back to sleepy Sankt Paul. Today, Köstinger is a member of European parliament and a close confidante of Kurz. She was raised, however, far from Brussels in and around Sankt Paul in the era of Haider, observing first hand a living laboratory of populism. If Kurz is to succeed, he would do well to take seriously Köstinger’s insights and those of her hometown. The rest of Europe will be watching.

Peter Rough, the former director of research in the office of George W. Bush, is a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C.

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