A few thoughts on the Austrian election
Why the rightwing Freedom party is so successfull and what the likely outcome will mean for Austria and Europe.
The country of Wiener Schnitzel, Sachertorte, skiing holidays and “The Sound of Music” is about to vote today and the prospect is not exactly rosy.
One year ago the country narrowly averted a far-right presidency, now Austria’s politics are on a track to the right. Recent polls predict that 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) will win, but the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) under their leader and ex-neo-nazi Heinz-Christian Strache is currently the runner-up. A second place in the election would make them kingmaker in subsequent coalition talks.
But what has lead to this dire state? Let’s take a brief look at Austria’s political situation:
- Austria always had an uncanny liking for rightwing parties.
- A strong culture of atonement (which has shaped German politics and society after WWII) does not exist to this day. Voting for right-wing populist parties is not considered a taboo (although it’s fair to say that this no longer the case in Germany as well, as we have seen recently).
- Austria is a rich country and inequality is moderate but still many people (especially from the middle- and lower middle class) fear for their status.
- This is linked to some fearing that ‘foreigners’ benefit too much at the expense of the Austrian people (it’s an ironic twist of fate that Austria’s booming tourism industry is strongly dependent on foreign labour for jobs Austrian’s often don’t want to do).
- On top of that, there is a smouldering xenophobia. This is not to say that every Austrian is xenophobic or racist (statements like these are always bullshit), but especially in rural parts of the country strong patriotism mixed with a rejection of foreigners/immigrants is widespread.
- The cultural angst that has helped other far-right parties succeed is also very much present in Austria. The Freedom Party has fanned the flames by blaming refugees and immigrants as endangering Austrian culture.
Why is the FPÖ so successful at the moment?
- Well, for one, see all the above points.
- Austria is still a very traditional country (staunchly catholic, a strong emphasis on traditional values), the rural population, in particular, has been alienated by an evermore liberal course of some mainstream parties.
- Second, the traditional centre parties ÖVP and the social democratic SPÖ have been engaged in a dirty campaign war which likely cost them votes (especially the SPÖ has suffered here. Members of the party tried to smear the ÖVP’s candidate Sebastian Kurz, something that did not go down well with the public).
- Both mainstream parties moved considerably to the right in an attempt to win back voters. At least for the ÖVP, this strategy has been fruitful but it has also allowed the FPÖ to dominate the political agenda. Instead of making concessions to the right, both the SPÖ and the ÖVP could have framed issues like immigration and the EU differently (Austria’s tourism industry is heavily dependent on foreign labour, Austria is strongly benefitting from the EU).
What will all this mean for the country of Mozart and for Europe?
- Well, it’s likely that the FPÖ will end up as part of the government in a coalition with the ÖVP. This will give the rightwing party a unique chance to shape Austria’s political debate for years to come (see the Front National in France, the AfD in Germany, UKIP in the United Kingdom, etc.)
- The FPÖ will certainly try to undermine Austria’s legacy media (it frequently attacks them) who have called them out in the past, including the public broadcaster ORF.
- Immigrants, refugees and foreigners face a hard time in Austria. Kurz has lead a campaign where he reiterated that he closed the Balkan route, Strache is known for his anti-muslim, anti-immigrant position and campaigned on these issues. He also wants to deny immigrants access to welfare.
- The Freedom Party wants to steer Austria away from Brussels, Paris and Berlin towards Warsaw and Budapest. The party is strongly eurosceptic and sees the EU as an enemy.
- Austria would become yet another EU country with a strong right-wing and eurosceptic voice in power, at a time where the EU is already suffering from inner tensions.
And what has Putin got to do with it?
- Well, so far I haven’t seen any studies or reports pointing towards any direct Russian meddling in the Austrian election. Then again, the FPÖ fared pretty well on its own as it seems. Both their campaign and their social media strategy have been very clever (see this piece by APA correspondent Alexander Fanta).
- This is, however, not to say that Putin’s Russia wouldn’t be in favour of a eurosceptic party having a say in Austrian politics. Every blow to the EU is a victory for Putin.
Felix Simon is a journalist and graduate in Film- and Media Studies of Goethe-University Frankfurt. He holds an MSc in Social Science of the Internet from the University of Oxford and works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He regularly writes for the “Feuilleton” of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (F.A.Z.), the online-edition of “Die Welt” and the “Telegraph”. On “Medium” he writes about various topics. He tweets under @_Felix Simon_.