I Aus­tria’s far right wins shot at power

Free­dom party stands good chance of join­ing gov­ern­ment after coali­tion’s col­lapse


The col­lapse of Aus­tria’s gov­ern­ment is of­fer­ing far­right pop­ulists a fresh chance to seize power. The Free­dom party has a good chance of join­ing any rul­ing coali­tion after elec­tions in Oc­to­ber. —

Europe was sup­posed to be able to breathe more eas­ily this year if the Dutch and French elec­tions passed with­out ush­er­ing Geert Wilders into gov­ern­ment or Marine Le Pen into the Elysée Palace. But a threat has loomed from an un­ex­pected di­rec­tion: Aus­tria, where the col­lapse of the gov­ern­ment is of­fer­ing far-right pop­ulists a fresh chance to seize power.

The Free­dom party is rid­ing high in opin­ion polls and has a good chance of join­ing any coali­tion gov­ern­ment after elec­tions on Oc­to­ber 15, a year ear­lier than planned. Six months ago the party came close to seiz­ing the largely cer­e­mo­nial Aus­trian pres­i­dency; elec­toral suc­cess this time would give it much more in­flu­ence.

If so, Aus­tria, usu­ally a stable ally of western Euro­pean neigh­bours, could move closer to the dis­grun­tled group of EU countries reg­u­larly voic­ing hos­til­ity to­wards some of the bloc’s poli­cies, es­pe­cially on im­mi­gra­tion. These in­clude Hun­gary and Poland, mem­bers of the so-called Viseg­rad group of eastern Euro­pean mem­bers. Free­dom party lead­ers have de­vel­oped ide­o­log­i­cal links with rightwing coun­ter­parts in the Viseg­rad states as well as with Rus­sia.

The EU would find it harder to func­tion “if Aus­tria be­comes part of the Viseg­rad awk­ward squad of gov­ern­ments that blame the EU and refuse to im­ple­ment mea­sures agreed on mi­gra­tion”, said Heather Grabbe, Euro­pean pol­i­tics ex­pert at the Open So­ci­ety Euro­pean Pol­icy In­sti­tute.

Aus­trian main­stream par­ties and Alexan­der Van der Bellen, the pres­i­dent, will re­sist al­low­ing Heinz-Chris­tian Stra­che, the Free­dom party’s leader, to be­come chan­cel­lor, even if his party takes the largest share of the vote. Mr Van der Bellen, a Green, nar­rowly beat the Free­dom party’s Nor­bert Hofer in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

But it is con­ceiv­able that ei­ther of the larger cen­trist par­ties — the So­cial Democrats led by Chris­tian Kern, the cur­rent chan­cel­lor, or the cen­tre-right Peo­ple’s party, where Se­bas­tian Kurz has just taken over as leader — might opt to forge an al­liance with the Free­dom party to se­cure the chan­cel­lor­ship.

Aus­trian sup­port for their main­stream par­ties — united un­til now in a grand coali­tion un­der Mr Kern — has waned amid a lack­lus­tre eco­nomic per- for­mance and the strains wrought by the refugee cri­sis that erupted in 2015. Aus­tria re­ceived about 42,000 re­quests for asy­lum last year and 90,000 the pre­vi­ous year.

The chances of the Free­dom party tak­ing the chan­cel­lor­ship are “pretty slim”, said Thomas Hofer, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst in Vi­enna. “How­ever, the chances of be­ing part of the gov­ern­ment are pretty high.”

The Free­dom party, founded in the 1950s by, among oth­ers, former Nazis, has been at the cen­tre of dis­putes be­tween Aus­tria and its neigh­bours be­fore. Un­der its charis­matic then leader Jörg Haider, it en­tered a coali­tion with the Peo­ple’s party in 2000, prompt­ing other Euro­pean countries to try to os­tracise Aus­tria.

To­day’s Free­dom party is like other Euro­pean pop­ulist move­ments in its anti-im­mi­gra­tion rhetoric. Mr Stra­che this week urged Aus­tria to take stronger steps to in­te­grate for­eign­ers as part of an “Aus­tria first” strat­egy. But there are also differences: it is un­likely to chal­lenge Aus­tria’s po­si­tion as a core mem­ber of the EU and the eu­ro­zone.

Sug­gest­ing that Aus­tria could quit the euro “doesn’t sell”, said Lothar Hö­belt, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Vi­enna univer­sity. “Every so of­ten they [the Free­dom party] make noises in that di­rec­tion, but they will never do that.”

What would be in­evitable from a gov­ern­ment in­clud­ing the Free­dom party, said Mr Hö­belt, would be “a more de­ter­mined line” on im­mi­gra­tion. “Hun­gary and Poland will ap­plaud wildly.”

Even if the Free­dom party is not part of the next gov­ern­ment, it has al­ready shaped pol­icy on im­mi­gra­tion. In par­tic­u­lar Mr Kurz, just 30 and for­eign min­is­ter since 2013, has built sup­port with a tough line on im­mi­gra­tion that echoes many of the Free­dom party’s poli­cies and which has ir­ri­tated Ber­lin.

After ini­tially sup­port­ing Ger­many’s “wel­come cul­ture”, Aus­tria ex­e­cuted an about-turn last year, agree­ing mea­sures with neigh­bour­ing countries to close the west Balkan route used by those flee­ing wars in Syria and else­where.

“If Kurz is learning his lines from the Free­dom party, then they have al­ready won con­trol of the nar­ra­tive,” said Ms Grabbe. “The taboo has been bro­ken of a main­stream party us­ing the pol­i­tics of fear to win elec­tions.”

Heinz-Chris­tian Stra­che: Free­dom party leader has urged his coun­try to adopt an ‘Aus­tria First’ pol­icy

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