Austrian Coalitions - Keep on Building
On the 29th of September Austrians headed to the polls to decide their future after the collapse of the OVP-FPO government due to ‘Ibizagate’. Despite Sebastian Kurz’s government being the first in the Second Republic to be ousted from power through a vote of no confidence, his party - the Austrian People’s Party - were always on course to win convincingly. The results show that Kurz did even better than expected, holding the biggest lead since 1945. His previous right-wing populist coalition partners collapsed to third while the Social Democrats failed to make a mark, recording their worst result since 1945. However, the Greens continued the European wide trend and received their best result, at 13.9% of the vote. These results pose interesting questions to onlookers: has ‘wunderkid’ Kurz found a centre-right route to electoral success? Is the best way to rid the political system of the far-right to expose them in power? And most importantly: what coalition will form over the coming weeks and months?
Thirty-three year old Sebastian Kurz has now won two elections in as many years despite the decline of the centre-right across Europe and his government being embroiled in scandal. Whereas other centre-right parties have been outflanked by the populist right, such as Forza Italia in Italy, others have been co-opted by populists as seen in the USA, Kurz has shown great political agility to find a broad alliance where it has splintered elsewhere. This can be attributed to Kurz’s hard-line policies on migration, integration and social policy with an agreeable, charming personality; partnering obligatory German lessons for migrants with a party-wide face-lift from a dour black to a youthful turquoise. It cannot simply be said that Kurz is a special political talent without recognising Austria’s unique political culture. It is the birthplace of the famous right-wing Austrian school of economic thought and has had a right-wing presence in government since 1987. This gives Kurz an easy battleground to buck the trend of failing mainstream centre-right parties.
It is not only Kurz’s OVP that is thriving in Austria but also the populist right-wing FPO. In 2017 they reached their second highest result of 26% of the vote utilising the refugee crisis of 2015-16. This was achieved through the same means as other populist movements of the time for instance attacking migration, Islam andmaintaining national identity. Rather than forming a Grand Coalition to weaken the populist right as seen in Germany Kurz invited the FPO into government allowing them to control foreign affairs, defence and the interior. This coalition imploded earlier this year due to the “Ibizagate” where FPO leader and Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was found to be receptive to proposals of popular news stories in return for government contracts. In light of this flagrant corruption the OVP-FPO government collapsed and new elections were called with FPO tumbling in the polls. In the elections the FPO continued to be ravaged by new accusations of corruption as the campaign ran on, this resulted in a weak showing of 16.2% and a third place finish. Whether this series of events vindicated Kurz’s decision to form a coalition or confirmed his doubters’ assertion that the FPO were not responsible enough for government is debated throughout Austria. The coalition managed to embarrass the Austrian government but also diminish the power of the populist right on the country.
Due to how the last coalition ended it appears unfeasible for Kurz to continue his coalition with the FPO, regional bosses are said to be tired of working with them and instead favour a pact with the Greens. The concept of a Greens-Conservative government will shock many in the Anglosphere but in Austria it has previously occurred at regional level. An emotional attachment to the homeland and a desire to keep their alpine identity has meant the conservative movement recognise they need to adapt environmentally to ensure this. However, the Greens in Austria are about more than just the environment, they place themselves on the left of the Social Democrats on economics and social issues. A softening of their stance on integration and social cuts may well be the price to pay for a coalition, this would appear to be a large demand for Kurz’s party as they were two core components of his last government. Kurz has always maintained he is a liberal conservative with focus on his moderation and considered to be a political chameleon by many pundits, this leads to speculation he will happily shift to the centre-ground and form a consensus government. A Conservative-Green coalition will be an interesting blueprint for the western world, two unlikely partners could come together due to their mutual interest in preserving their way of life.
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