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