Austrian Elections Demonstrate Success of Aestheticized Populism

The victory of Sebastian Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in parliamentary elections on October 15 is the latest manifestation of the rightward shift in European politics and the consequence of adjustments conservative politicians are making to attract a wider base. 

The ÖVP came in at first place with more than 30 percent of the vote, followed by the far-right, anti-Islam Freedom Party (FPÖ) and incumbent Chancellor Christian Kern’s center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ).

As Austria’s next chancellor, thirty-one-year-old Kurz will be the world’s youngest elected leader. Ahead of the election, he rebranded ÖVP the “New People’s Party” with an energetic slogan—“Zeit für Neues” (Time for Something New).

Kurz asserts his positions as pro-European Union (EU)—free movement, with secure borders. As a consequence, he is mainstreaming his politics—an embrace of a populist, closed-door stance on refugees—as European. Far from revolutionary, Kurz’s success is a victory for en vogue conservatism framed as pragmatism and dressed in cosmopolitan garb.

In his election campaign, Kurz appealed to far-right voters by co-opting core issues that were part of the FPÖ’s platform—migration and security. He relied on talking points traditionally used by opponents of the EU’s refugee policy on minimum quotas and called for closed borders and deterring refugees from coming to Europe, while making a humanitarian appeal for increased aid to victims of violent conflicts, as long as they do not receive that aid in Europe. His track record as Austria’s foreign minister—tightening the Balkan route used by migrants—spoke to security-minded and anti-refugee voters alike. He has spoken against rescuing migrants stranded in the Mediterranean Sea, blaming these missions and the EU’s welcoming policies for the massive numbers of drowned migrants.

Moreover, Kurz, who is open to a coalition with the far-right FPÖ, has been lauded by Islamophobes as a millennial who will crack down on radical Islam. Time magazine’s annual “Next Generation Leaders” edition featured him in March as “A New Kind of Statesman” for “finding a new way to address Europe’s refugee crisis.” The article’s author described Kurz as pragmatic, finding middle-ground solutions, and “going rogue,” when needed, to find compromise on border security, citing a 2016 deal Kurz brokered between Austria and nine Balkan states on the migrant route. That initiative, which has been described by the Migration Policy Institute as “outsourcing migration management,” has had disastrous ripple effects as Austria’s cap on asylum applicants and the passage of migrants on to Germany sharply dropped. This week, Time published a self-congratulatory follow-up piece explaining Kurz’s electoral victory as being the result of his “political flexibility” and “turning European politics on its head.”

Meanwhile, the FPÖ’s resurgence is not surprising when considered in the context of the migrant crisis facing Europe. In 2016, FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer lost the presidential elections by 30,000 votes, and polling in advance of the October 2017 parliamentary elections had the FPÖ in the lead, until Kurz adopted more of its rhetoric. The last time the FPÖ—founded by former Nazis in the 1950s—was in government, in coalition with the ÖVP in 2000, the EU imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria. The EU cited the FPÖ’s role in government as being a violation of EU values because of its inherent racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant framework. The sanctions were lifted months later after fears of further stoking anti-EU sentiment in Austria. This action was justified on the grounds that the FPÖ had behaved itself. With European politics shifting to the right and the prospect of Kurz forming a governing coalition with the FPÖ, no hope for similar sanctions or outrage exists today. What was once unthinkable and against European values is now the new normal.

Since their founding, parties like the FPÖ have cycled between sanitized vote-getting and hardline nativism, co-opting nationalist, anti-EU, reformist, anti-government, and libertarian sentiments across a variety of demographics, and forcing even the most entrenched political machines to adjust course.

The traditional political parties, the SPÖ and the ÖVP, have been forced to entertain the FPÖ’s scapegoating of Muslims, tempering the rising popularity of the FPÖ’s anti-Islam platform with compromise on contentious religious freedom issues. Austria, where Muslims comprise at least 8 percent of the population—rising from 6 to 8 percent over the past fifteen years—was seen as a model for integration. In 1912, Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I’s “Islam Law” (Islamgesetz) established Islam as one of Austria’s state religions, protecting Muslims’ religious freedom. That law came under attack in recent years by the FPÖ, which has pushed its anti-Islam agenda through parliament with the support of centrists like Kurz. The 2015 Islam Act confirmed the 1912 law but contentiously banned foreign financing for mosques, an act which Kurz supported as minister for foreign affairs and integration. Some Austrian Muslim leaders consider this act, including the decision to regulate language in Austrian mosques and insist on “positive attitudes” towards Austrian society, to be discriminatory. Other religious congregations do not face similar financing or language restrictions in Austria.

In another instance of the SPÖ and the ÖVP caving to the political beliefs of the FPÖ, all three parties agreed to a full ban on face veils (niqabs), which came to effect in October, despite estimates that there are no more than 150 women who wear niqab in Austria.

“This is a Europe-wide trend,” said Farid Hafez, a political scientist at Salzburg University and a senior researcher at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative. “In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from the centrist-right Fidesz party has very much used anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, which helped him in the short-term to strengthen his party against the extreme far-right Jobbik party. In France, the centrist-right political leaders co-opted the law-and-order politics of the extreme far-right of Marine Le Pen’s Front National.”

It remains to be seen how Kurz will cater to the far-right, be it with more restrictions on refugees or supporting petty, symbolic fights with the Muslim community. Hafez believes that Kurz will normalize xenophobia in Europe. “In contrast to the FPÖ, Kurz is sometimes more ambivalent, supporting a much more subtle racist discourse. Kurz has moved more and more to co-opt the Islamophobic claims, which were originally made by the FPÖ,” he said.

Hafez expects a continuation of the law-and-order politics that have so far propelled Kurz. “For instance, Kurz called for a ban of Muslim kindergartens and there is little reason to believe that no action will follow his words, especially if he [forms a coalition] with the FPÖ,” he said.

Contrary to Time’s praise of Kurz, savvy is not groundbreaking in politics. Kurz’s rise is a blueprint for the verbal gymnastics right-wing politicians can employ to maintain electability.

Adham Sahloul is a program assistant with the Religion, Identity, and Human Rights Project at the Atlantic Council.

Image: Austria’s next chancellor, thirty-one-year-old Sebastian Kurz of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), is open to forming a coalition with the far-right, anti-Islam Freedom Party (FPÖ). (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)