Austria’s relationship with the far-right is dramatically different to Germany’sby Kimberly Bradley / October 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
In September’s German elections, the centre-right made clear its opposition to the far-right, as Angela Merkel’s campaign celebrated Germany as a liberal, tolerant nation welcoming of outsiders. Next door in Austria, which goes to the polls in October, the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by 31-year-old foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, is following a different path, aping the language and policies of the far-right Freedom Party—which was founded by former Nazis after the Second World War—and even considering joining them in coalition.
Austria’s relationship with the far-right is dramatically different to Germany’s. While the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is the first far-right party to sit in the Bundestag since the start of the 1960s, the Austrian far-right has long had a presence in parliament, as the third party. It actually served in a coalition in 2000. Back then, sanctions were briefly placed on Austria by the EU, until it was clear that democratic processes and human rights norms would be respected. That was in the middle of the Freedom Party’s three-decade effort, which continued under the divisive Jörg Haider, to “buffer” populism’s harder edges, and give respectable Austrians with stridently nationalist propensities a place to express their grievances—the polling station.
In both countries, however, the far-right is banking on the same primary topic, migration—and all the fearmongering that goes with it. After all, the migration waves that reached Biblical proportions in late 2015 hit these two countries visibly and dramatically. One little-known fact is that in 2015, Austria received more asylum applications per capita than did Germany.
And yet while Angela Merkel responds to the populist attack by declaring wir schaffen das (“we can do it”), Kurz, as foreign minister, called for fences, detaining migrants on islands, and reduced aid to refugees already in Austria. Some of his suggestions have alienated the ÖVP’s more liberal voters. Kurz was also behind a long-discussed ban on full-face covering, which took effect on 1st October. (Though aimed at the mere 150 women who wear burqas or niqabs in this country, clowns were among early arrests.)
Kurz seems to have orchestrated a breathtaking takeover of the party, rebranding it to reflect youth and change. And with his anti-migration stance, he’s also garnering voters from the far-right who might have leaned more centrist all along. In the meantime, the Social Democrats—and current chancellor Christian Kern—have been wallowing in scandals all summer, the most recent being an alleged internet smear campaign against Kurz. Austria is thus bracing for a big shift—its new goverment’s true colours will likely be very different to Germany’s.