Austrian Politics—Black and Blue
In December 2017, Austria got its new government, a coalition between the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), headed by the charismatic 31-year-old college dropout Sebastian Kurz, the world’s youngest head of state, and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ)—European ally to France’s Front national and official partner of Putin’s party United Russia—under their long-time leader Heinz-Christian ‘HC’ Strache, a trained dental technician and occasional rapper. Ever since World War Two, Austria has almost always been governed by a coalition between centre-right Christian conservatives and centre-left social democrats. Yet already from 2000 to 2006 Austria had a “black and blue” (the parties’ colors) coalition between centre-right and far right. (Technically, the ÖVP has rebranded itself in light blue under Kurz, “blue lite” if you will.) Back then, the EU announced sanctions against Austria for a short while, and the government had to sneak to its inauguration through an underground tunnel to avoid the masses of protesters outside. Demonstrations peaked at somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 participants shortly thereafter—in a country of 8 million—and thousands continued to demonstrate every Thursday for months. This time, only 5,000 people took to the streets of Vienna on inauguration day, followed by around 10,000 in January. In Austria as in other European countries, far-right parties serving in governments does not provoke nearly the same amount of shock it once did.
For this and other reasons, Sebastian Kurz might well be the most powerful Austrian chancellor since the 1970s, as Armin Wolf, the country’s most prominent anchor-man has recently argued. He took over the party in a meticulously prepared internal coup after subtly sabotaging his predecessor’s coalition to the point where the latter threw in the towel. Most of Kurz’s ministers and a number of parliamentarians are newcomers who only rose to power with him and have little backing in the old party structures—their political fate thus depends entirely on his. Formally, Kurz forced his party to accept new statutes that grant him wide-ranging decision making powers—concerning ballot lists or coalition negotiations, for example—without so much as consulting with party boards. Key organizations within the party, but also the country’s biggest unions, are busy consolidating themselves after generational changes, and the opposition still licking its wounds after the blow of the 2017 elections.
And yet, the government has stayed put for most of 2018, undertaking no major projects as long as another hurdle remained: namely, state level elections in four of Austria’s nine regions, Lower Austria, Tyrol, Carinthia, and Salzburg. Lower Austria, which voted in January, has been Christian conservative heartland since time immemorial. Its governor, Erwin Pröll, long seen as the most powerful man in the ÖVP, had ruled the state with charisma and an iron fist since 1992, but was forced to step down just a few months prior to this year’s election, when the Viennese newspaper Der Falter uncovered that he had redirected several millions of tax dollars to his private foundation. Nonetheless, his political foster-daughter, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, easily consolidated the party’s dominance. The far right’s top candidate was vice-chairman of a fraternity whose song-book, it turned out just days before the election thanks to the same Viennese newspaper, featured racist and anti-Semitic Nazi songs. He resigned reluctantly after the FPÖ “merely” doubled their previous scores in the January election.
The mountain valleys of the “Holy Land of Tyrol” might well be the second most Catholic place on earth after the Vatican, and the Christian conservatives easily held their dominion there as well. Significantly, though, the state also remains a bastion of the left-liberal Green Party, thanks largely to the city of Innsbruck. In 2016, the Greens had managed in an unprecedented success to win the Presidential election in a run-off against the far right’s candidate. (The President in Austria theoretically holds a great deal of power, but customarily does not exercise it. For all practical purposes, the real power lies with the Chancellor, who heads the government.) Ever since, it’s been downhill for them. Caught up in intergenerational fights, one of their most prominent MPs, Peter Pilz, decided to found his own party, which split the left-liberal vote in half. The Green Party fell beneath the 4% threshold in the 2017 elections that brought Kurz to power and is currently not represented in Parliament.
A similar disaster followed for the Greens in Carinthia, when two days before the election in March, the head of the party, Eva Glawischnig, announced that she would step down to take a well-paid job with a multinational gambling cooperation (the satirical Tagespresse, Austria’s equivalent of The Onion, simply decided that reality had beaten them and there was no way to ironize this and just reported the actual event). But perhaps this low was in fact a turning point. Besides staying in the Tyrolean government, the Greens in Innsbruck won their first ever mayorship of a major city. They also saw some success in the Salzburg elections, where despite strong gains by the far right, they entered a coalition with the ÖVP as well as the small liberal NEOS party, breaking with the new political constellation in the federal government. As for Carinthia, which had never been strong ground for the centre-right, the ÖVP held its 10%, while the centre-left social democrats celebrated a day of victory.
With these state elections over, Kurz’s government now has a free hand to begin implementing its projects in earnest. From the FPÖ, we can expect to see harsher anti-immigrant policies. Party ideologue and éminence grise Herbert Kickl has suggested it is time to gather asylum seekers “concentrated in camps.” Even the current Secretary of Justice and Deregulation, Josef Moser (once a speech writer to the infamous Jörg Haider, under whose leadership the far right returned to national prominence in the late 1990s) has suggested while heading a budgetary control committee that such centralized accommodation is much more expensive than private accommodation for refugees, and effectively harmful to integration efforts. But of course, the far right’s entire strategy is premised on the failure of integration policies. While the far right also seeks to brand itself as an economically left-wing, working-class party (“the social homeland party”), in practice the centre-right’s business-friendly tax, deregulation, and trade policy dominates the coalition, favouring Kurz’s most important industrial backers. The FPÖ has suddenly become silent about the CETA, for example, and the government plans to implement a “flexibilization” of working-hours, making it possible to for employers to ask their employees to “voluntarily’ work twelve-hour days. It remains to be seen if and when these policies will draw the ire of the FPÖ’s working-class constituencies. In 2000, their popular support soon dropped when as part of the coalition they had to start showing results and defending compromises. This time around, however, they hold up quite well in the polls. Since the economy is doing well, it might take a while for cuts to hit home.
A strong oppositional front has yet to crystallize. The centre-left SPÖ has been part of the government since WWII, with two brief interruptions, and is still getting used to its role in the opposition. In ex-chancellor Christian Kern, it has a capable and spirited leader, a Blairite with a working-class background, who raised his first son as a single father and made a name for himself as a manager of Austrian Federal Railways. The Green party has been kicked out of the Parliament and signs of its rebirth are still inchoate. The movement of former Green Peter Pilz—who had advocated a more left-populist course within the party, as well as opposition to both the far-right and “political Islam”—managed to pass the 4% threshold and kept eight seats in Parliament. Two weeks later, however, Pilz had to step down amongst allegations of sexual harassment. He plans a comeback, but until then the MPs of his new party are struggling to find their feet as a parliamentary force.
Meanwhile, the (neo)liberal NEOS party has grown continually since its founding in 2012, taking ten seats in the national parliament while forming a coalition with the Greens and centre-right in Salzburg. Unexpectedly, however, NEOS’s founder Mathias Strolz announced soon afterwards that he will retire from politics, for no apparent reasons other than that he never wanted to be a lifelong politician and that he might as well get out while he’s ahead. Strolz is famed for his emotional and frank speeches, and it remains to be seen whether the party can fill the gap.
Given the fairly weak opposition, Kurz and Strache might well only have to fear themselves. As with Donald Trump’s Republicans in America, the largest possible obstacle in their way would seem to be fights within the parties and their coalition. One such fight has moved into the spotlight in a rather remarkable way. In March, a police unit under the leadership of an FPÖ city council usually deployed to fight petty crime, together with an anti-corruption force, and raided the offices of the Secret Service of the Interior, allegedly to investigate cases of corruption. The Secret Service, traditionally seen as close to the ÖVP, also investigates right-wing extremism. One of the websites under surveillance is unzensuriert.at (“uncensored”), which panders mostly conspiracy theories and FPÖ panegyrics; its former editor-in-chief is now a high ranking communications officer in the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees all police forces. Numerous newspapers reported that data from the Secret Service’s department on right-wing extremism was confiscated during the raid, even though the alleged corruption concerned other departments. The case gained a lot of attention, even in France, and a multi-partisan parliamentary inquiry into the affair was set-up. Within the ÖVP—which despite Kurz’s reforms, retains a strongly federal internal structure—not all is quiet yet. The governors of Tyrol and Salzburg have refused coalitions with the FPÖ, marking their distance from the government in Vienna, and party heavyweights like Andrä Rupprechter, former Secretary for Agriculture, who has been demoted to a mere advisory position in the new government, might yet wait for Kurz’s aura to fade.
An old joke has it that in Germany the situation is always serious but never hopeless, while in Austria it is always hopeless… but never serious. But in Austria today we may well be seeing quite serious signs of things to come. While currently Kurz seems a little behind on the trail that Orbán and Kaczyński have been blazing, the AfD in Germany might now be where the FPÖ was in the 1990s. Keep an eye on Austria.
Postscript: For German-speakers interested in following the onging drama of Austrian politics, I’d recommend following Armin Wolf, Florian Klenk, Paul Aigner, the country’s main news show Zeit im Bild, its most important quality centre-left and centre-right newspapers, Der Standard and Die Presse, as well as the public Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, which has been, institutionally and through its journalists, a persistent target of FPÖ rhetoric. The privately-owned yellow press has long been the far right’s eager servant.