Conservatism’s Wunderkind Is Getting Swallowed by the Far-Right

Austria’s chancellor made a deal with populists, and it’s not going according to plan.

Sebastian Kurz arrives at the Mozarteum University to attend a plenary session part of the EU Informal Summit of Heads of State or Government in Salzburg, Austria, on Sept. 20, 2018.
Sebastian Kurz arrives at the Mozarteum University to attend a plenary session part of the EU Informal Summit of Heads of State or Government in Salzburg, Austria, on Sept. 20, 2018. CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

If there is one word that would summarize the first year of the coalition government between the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the populist, far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), it would be harmony. Following the decadelong rule of a grand coalition between the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the ÖVP, marked by public infighting and Leonid Brezhnev-like political stagnancy, Europe’s youngest leader, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the ÖVP, swept into office in December 2017 with a bold reform agenda, a new coalition partner, and a novel theory for saving center-right conservatism.

Hailed in the media as Europe’s “most important politician” and a political wunderkind, the 32-year-old Kurz was thought to have found a new way of neutering the far-right by running on a populist-lite platform that promoted economic liberalism and a tough stand on migration, underpinned by a sense of national identity. Kurz was also believed to have discovered a respectful and productive way of doing business with his coalition partner—a partner that had previously been ostracized by most mainstream politicians. “Even I’m surprised at how quickly and brilliantly we’re working,” Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, FPÖ’s party leader, remarked during a press conference last year, where he and Kurz were finishing each other’s sentences.

The brief honeymoon between the two parties, however, now appears to be over. In part, that’s because of the impending European Parliament elections and the inevitable rhetoric pitting the partners against each other. But the problem goes beyond campaign season. Judging by the polls, Kurz’s theory for taming the far-right and reaping the benefits for establishment conservatives has mostly succeeded. But Kurz is nevertheless finding his government’s energy—and his own reputation—swallowed by his junior partner’s obsessions and excesses.

“Although it is certainly still the priority for Kurz to continue with his coalition and push the agenda of the current government, he is now also preparing an exit strategy,” Thomas Hofer, one of Austria’s leading political analysts, recently told Foreign Policy. “The harmony and level of trust in the coalition are certainly endangered.” The natural question is when Kurz will reach his breaking point with the current coalition. Those hoping for a quick ousting of the far-right from government, however, are likely to be disappointed. Joining the far-right was a pragmatic calculation for Kurz, and that calculation still holds.

At the outset of taking office, Kurz avoided commenting publicly on FPÖ misbehavior, bringing him the nickname of Schweigekanzler (“silent chancellor”). Instead, he preferred to visibly emphasize the harmony between him and his FPÖ counterpart, Strache, who dismissed the manifold lapses of party members as “isolated cases.”

But a recent onslaught of negative press has forced his hand. It began with the mass shootings at two New Zealand mosques in March that killed 51 people. The gunman accused of carrying out the deadly attacks in Christchurch had donated 1,500 euros (about $1,700) to Martin Sellner, the head of Generation Identity, a far-right youth movement with ties to the FPÖ. Notably, prior to becoming interior minister, Herbert Kickl, the chief ideologue of the FPÖ, expressed sympathy with the Identarian movement. Sellner in turn recently conveyed his admiration for Strache, who in an interview vowed to fight “the great replacement” of Europeans by migrants, echoing the rhetoric of Generation Identity, the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter, and far-right white nationalist circles in general. Kurz called Generation Identity “disgusting” and vowed to investigate any links between the movement and his coalition partner.

Last month, a FPÖ official—the mayor of Braunau, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler—was forced to resign after he published a poem likening migrants to rats. Kurz called the poem “abominable, dehumanizing, and deeply racist” and demanded the FPÖ immediately distance itself from the author of the text and its words, implicitly threatening to end the coalition. Strache’s compliance led to widespread grumbling within the FPÖ base.

The pinnacle of recent FPÖ missteps was reached when Harald Vilimsky, the general secretary of the party and its front-runner in the upcoming European Parliament elections this month, threatened Austria’s top anchorman, Armin Wolf, on the Austrian public broadcaster ORF. Wolf had questioned Vilimsky about a cartoon poster of the FPÖ youth wing in the Austrian state of Styria that represented Muslim migrants similarly to anti-Semitic depictions of Jews in the Nazi paper Der Stürmer.

Following the interview, the FPÖ politician Ursula Stenzel compared Wolf to a Nazi judge at the Third Reich’s People’s Court, while Norbert Steger, the head of the ORF board of directors, nominated to this position by the FPÖ, called the interview “perverted” and recommended Wolf “take a sabbatical,” while Strache found the conversation “more than disgusting.” Kurz, in turn, decided to demonstrably show his solidarity with Wolf by saying that he likes going on his show, and he appeared on the program a few days after the Vilimsky interview, emphasizing his commitment to the freedom of the press.

Despite Kurz’s placatory efforts, Austria in 2019 was downgraded from 11th to 16th place in the press freedom ranking compiled by Reporters Without Borders, principally as a result of FPÖ attacks against Austrian media institutions. The FPÖ attacks against Wolf also led to an unprecedented outpouring of solidarity in the German-speaking media world. Germany’s most influential tabloid, Bild, in an editorial called on Kurz to start thinking about a political “Plan B,” or alternative to the current coalition with the FPÖ.

Furthermore, Austria’s most influential tabloid—and most influential media outlet overall besides the ORF—the Kronen Zeitung, in a commentary called the FPÖ “not fit to govern.” Many observers agree—including perhaps the party’s base. While the party triumvirate—consisting of Strache, Kickl, and Minister of Transport, Innovation, and Technology Norbert Hofer—desperately wants to remain in government, a faction of the party would be content in an opposition role. The fundamental problem for the leadership is that populist rhetoric no longer suffices to placate the party base. The FPÖ also had to make important concessions to enter the coalition with Kurz, including abandoning plans for more direct democratic mechanisms and embracing free trade and more liberal economic policies.

This discontent shows in public opinion surveys. Despite critiques of Kurz as an enabler of far-right politics, there is ample evidence that he and his push of the ÖVP to the right have curtailed FPÖ successes at the ballot box. Ever since entering government, the FPÖ has consistently polled behind the social democratic SPÖ party—prior to Kurz taking over the ÖVP in 2017, the FPÖ was slated to become the strongest political party in Austria. Kurz and his party, meanwhile, remain in the pole position.

The FPÖs connections to the Kremlin have also proved a to be a headache for the Kurz government. Austrian politicians have traditionally maintained close ties to Russia, although Kurz has also been seeking closer ties with the United States. Purported Russian influence on Austrian intelligence agencies, all three of which are overseen by FPÖ ministers, paired with a allegedly FPÖ-ordered illegal seizure of intelligence on right-wing extremist groups in Austria has led a number of Western intelligence agencies to limit information-sharing with their Austrian partners. As I reported for Kleine Zeitung, a U.S. source confirmed that this now also includes military intelligence, although it should be noted that the country’s intelligence agencies were always subject to political party influence.

Kurz’s troubles, however, are not just the result of the FPÖ. ÖVP party members not happy with the young chancellor’s shift to the right have flocked around the person whom he ousted as party head in 2017, former Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner. Last month, he published a political memoir that became an instant best-seller, in which he criticizes the takeover of the party by Kurz and his acolytes, who purportedly conspired against Mitterlehner and sabotaged the previous SPÖ-ÖVP coalition. In book interviews, Mitterlehner called Kurz a “right-wing populist.” He also expressed disapproval of the chancellor’s scapegoating of migrants. Furthermore, he warned that Austria is on the road to becoming an “authoritarian democracy.” Kurz rejected these characterizations, although they appear to have touched a nerve among some ÖVP members.

Rather than engaging with the Mitterlehner critique, Kurz focused on pushing his policy agenda in past weeks. This month, he pushed for an update to the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon from 2009, a move notably opposed by the FPÖ. His proposal includes penalties for member states violating liberal democratic principles and the rule of law, as well as tougher consequences for fiscally irresponsible member states and those refusing to register and detain immigrants entering the country illegally. He also advocated for the government’s tax reform and campaigned for the European People’s Party front-runner in the European Parliament elections, Manfred Weber. Conspicuously, he rejected the idea that conservative parties should work together with far-right parties like France’s National Rally and the Alliance for Germany at the EU level, although his coalition partner is cooperating with both factions.

The chief vulnerability for the chancellor remains his coalition partner, the FPÖ—and the apprehension is mutual. Within the far-right party, there is a fear that Kurz will go down the route of former ÖVP Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, who, heading a ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, as a result of internal FPÖ infighting called for new elections in 2002, resulting in a stunning ÖVP victory and the splitting up of the FPÖ into two separate parties. 2002 constituted the deepest crisis for the FPÖ in its history, and its effects still linger. The difference now is that the FPÖ is ideologically more unified. Unlike Schüssel, who formed a government with the more liberally minded splinter faction of the FPÖ, the Alliance for the Future of Austria, Kurz faces a far-right party with a clear ideological position and strong leadership.

Kurz has few alternative options. He has little interest in revamping the grand coalition between the ÖVP and SPÖ, which had jointly governed Austria for decades, roughly equally dividing up the national government, bureaucracy, and public sector, including the ORF, between themselves. Independent of its anti-migrant stance, the FPÖ’s opposition to this decades-old system, called Proporz, made it an appealing alternative for those not content with the political status quo. “Kurz more than once distanced himself from that kind of grand coalition,” noted Hofer, the political analyst. “Most party officials do not think such a coalition could put together any agenda that would foster Kurz’s reform agenda.” It’s unlikely that the social democrats would ever support his tough stance on migration and his push for economic liberalization, deregulation, and reform of the Austrian welfare system. (Meanwhile, a coalition with the Green party or the liberal NEOS party appear simply numerically impossible.)

Rejecting the SPÖ is also a matter of principle for Kurz. His principal domestic mission has been to cement the end of the consensus Proporz system, which he sees as having both politically and economically run out of steam over the past two decades. He found in the FPÖ a willing partner. The coalition has always been a marriage of convenience, not a marriage of love, although it is unclear which of the two parties profits more from the relationship. While the FPÖ is currently busy inserting its own people into the national bureaucracy and public sector, the ÖVP gradually expands its influence, and both parties are slowly purging institutions of SPÖ sympathizers. In that sense, the fear of a politicization of public institutions, including the ORF, is partially overstated: Every public institution, including Austria’s intelligence services, has been under the influence of one party or the other for decades. The difference now, though, is that this political influence is coming from the far-right.

Kurz will continue to walk a tightrope by condemning xenophobic FPÖ rhetoric on the one hand while trying to hold the coalition together on the other. Perhaps the only things that could break the coalition would be either a grand corruption scandal involving senior FPÖ ministers or an FPÖ action so flagrantly controversial—like an open call for violence against migrants or a direct attack on Austria’s judicial system—that it would ineradicably hurt Kurz’s personal brand as a dynamic, young, and upright conservative leader both domestically and abroad.

Yet there is no doubt that the chancellor is becoming weary of his coalition partner. If it’s not yet the beginning of the end of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, it’s certainly the end of the beginning—and the start of a new chapter in the career of Europe’s conservative wunderkind.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior editor at The Diplomat magazine and senior fellow at the EastWest Institute. Twitter: @hoanssolo

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