If Sebastian Kurz Is Everything, He’s Nothing
The Austrian chancellor could become a star in an unprecedented coalition with the Green party—but that's not the sort of history he's interested in making.
The old abbreviation KuK, which in the days of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary stood for kaiserlich und königlich (imperial and royal) and referred to the Habsburg court, is once again making the rounds in the former imperial capital of Vienna. These days, however, KuK does not connote a new imperial reign or a newfound veneration for the old monarchy. Rather, it stands for the names of the two principal victors of last month’s snap elections in Austria: Sebastian Kurz, the head of the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), and Werner Kogler, the leader of the Austrian Greens. Kurz’s ÖVP managed to expand its uncontested pole position within the Austrian electorate to 37.5 percent of total votes, while the Greens achieved the best electoral result in their history, rising to 13.9 percent.
Given that the two parties will now hold a majority in Parliament, a novel center-right/center-left KuK coalition government is a distinct possibility and has already become the preferred option among Austria’s political commentariat. Kurz may indeed pull this off—but it’s worth considering at what expense. Observers seem to believe that Kurz’s reputation would be burnished by showing the flexibility to shift from working with his previous far-right partners to cooperating with the Greens. But Kurz would likely disagree that such flexibility is a virtue.
The ÖVP and the Greens have been mostly tight-lipped about the possibility of a KuK coalition. “Schau ma mal” (“Let’s see”) is the most frequently heard expression among members of both parties. Coalition negotiations in Austria are long, drawn-out affairs—and this time it may take even longer, with a new government most likely to be sworn in sometime in the first quarter of 2020. Numerically, the ÖVP could also form coalitions with the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), which suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1945, and the leading party’s erstwhile partner, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which saw its support drop from 26 percent in 2017 to 16.2 percent, as a result of the Ibizagate corruption scandal and the purported embezzlement of party funds by its former leader, Heinz-Christian Strache.
Kurz has repeatedly expressed his desire for “proper center-right politics,” and in that case the FPÖ would be the logical partner. The far-right party’s leadership, however, has already stated its desire to return to opposition politics and is plagued by infighting. Equally unfeasible seems a resuscitation of the so-called ÖVP-SPÖ grand coalition that governed the country for most of the post-World War II period: It is not only deeply unpopular among the Austrian electorate, but it would also run contrary to Kurz’s image as a reformer of the entrenched power-sharing system established by both parties known as Proporz. This would seem to only leave the Greens as potential partner for Kurz.
But this poses a question for the center-left Greens: Can they govern alongside Kurz and his center-right “populism lite”? At the personal level, Kurz and Kogler appear to get along. Campaign confrontations between the two were largely free of personal attacks. But even a cursory look at the Greens and ÖVP party programs reveals an enormous ideological gap. The ÖVP intends to cut taxes, deregulate, and reduce public expenditure, while the Greens push for new taxes—on inheritance, carbon emissions, and capital gains—and want to engage in a massive public infrastructure project to build up public transportation networks to help address what ultimately was the principal external factor contributing to the party’s success at the polls: climate change. The Greens will also have difficulties supporting Kurz’s tough stance on illegal immigration, cutting public funds for refugees, and deporting asylum applicants upon receiving a negative notice, even if they have jobs and have been successfully integrated within Austrian society. The two parties also have significant differences when it comes to education and welfare reforms. Furthermore, the Greens are pushing aggressively for more transparency in party finances, especially campaign financing, which the ÖVP (and SPÖ) have so far rejected. Any of these topics has the potential to derail coalition negotiations.
Still, there are some surprising convergences. Notably, a Green party member in Upper Austria, Rudi Anschober, launched a successful initiative in 2017 dubbed “Education instead of Deportation,” which was supported by some conservatives, to not deport asylum-seekers undergoing apprenticeships. Kurz apparently has expressed his willingness to compromise on this issue. Both parties have also pledged to fight religious extremism, especially in the context of protecting women’s rights. Additionally, neither party is keen on increasing defense spending.
Kogler has also expressed some flexibility when it comes to introducing a carbon tax and has reached out to Austrian industries to assuage fears of a Green government. The ÖVP, for its part, has a history of attempting to introduce environmentally friendly economic policies. In the 1980s, the ÖVP politician and federal vice chancellor of Austria Josef Riegler introduced the concept of ökosoziale Marktwirtschaft, or eco-social market economy, which aimed to steer the public and private sectors of the economy to the protection and sustainable use of the country’s natural resources by introducing higher social and environmental standards. Riegler failed to transform the ÖVP into an eco-political movement, but he did have some successes, including the party’s emphasis on organic farming. Notably, the ÖVP has quite successfully governed with the Greens at the state level in a number of Austrian states including in Upper Austria, Tirol, Vorarlberg, and Salzburg, although it should be noted that these regional ÖVP parties have been very critical of Kurz’s more populist policies and his embrace of certain far-right FPÖ positions.
In a recent poll, a ÖVP-Green party coalition government would get the support of 57 percent of Austrians. A continuation of the ÖVP-FPÖ government has the least support, with 42 percent, according to the data. What is almost certain is that an ÖVP-Green coalition would hurt both parties in the long run at the ballot box, with both Kurz and Kogler losing credibility in front of some of their respective constituencies. The ÖVP received more than 258,000 votes from former FPÖ supporters, while over 193,000 previous SPÖ voters cast their ballot for the Greens. Former FPÖ and SPÖ voters are bound to be unhappy with the inevitable compromises a center-left/center-right government will entail. This will, in turn, strengthen Austria’s far-right.
Should the Greens refuse to enter government, or should its far-left faction in Vienna boycott a possible coalition agreement, however, the party will have to live with the legacy of having enabled a new ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, which is the most likely outcome of failed negotiations. (Talks between the two parties broke down once before, in 2002, following the collapse of a FPÖ-ÖVP coalition, which opened the way for a revamped center-right/far-right government.) Yet Kurz will be a tough sell to the Greens. Kurz, among center-left voters, remains a polarizing and untrustworthy figure. The former and soon-to-be-again chancellor already helped prematurely end two coalitions, SPÖ-ÖVP in 2017, and ÖVP-FPÖ in 2019, within the short timespan of two years, leaving his former partners in shambles both times. To many he is seen as a “man without qualities”—after the Robert Musil novel about the last years of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy—who bases his politics on polls and personal advancement rather than deeply held ideological and political convictions.
But this may be a critical misreading of Kurz and his true political aims. Governing with the Greens does not appear to have been part of any long-term strategy developed by Kurz, in contrast with his clear intention to partner with the far-right when he first took over the ÖVP. Indeed, Kurz’s ideological flexibility is likely overstated. Time and again, he has fiercely attacked center-left and far-left politics, carefully cultivating a political brand based on that opposition. Indeed, Kurz’s entire political career began with the European migrant crisis in 2015 within his own center-right party. He became an international figure based on his populist center-right agenda that included his purported closure of the so-called Balkan refugee route, in clear opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do it!”) open border migration policy. As a result, he has a stake in maintaining this political persona. A coalition with the culturally liberal Greens, and the sacrifice of political credibility it might entail, may be less tolerable for him on a personal level than it would seem at first glance.
In that sense, the Greens walking away from negotiations may be the best outcome for Kurz, as it would provide a way to restore the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition as a statesmanlike gesture to avoid leaving Austria leaderless. Of course, he would have to accept that coalitions with the FPÖ tend to be unstable, with history showing they usually trigger new elections within less than two years; it’s unclear whether Kurz could survive another prematurely failed government. What he ultimately wants is to be able to govern alone to pursue his populist lite agenda. For now, Kurz must choose between a coalition he doesn’t want and a coalition that’s unlikely to last.