Austria: Big win for far right in elections

Austrian People's Party candidate and likely chancellor Sebastian Kurz (right) with Social Democratic Party's Christian Kern during a televised debate.
October 20, 2017

The Austrian legislative elections, held on October 15, finished with one clear winner: 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who leads the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP). His party emerged as the biggest political force in the country, winning 31.7% of the votes and 61 of the 183 seats in Austrian parliament’s lower house, the National Council.

Kurz is now set to become Austria’s new chancellor – the youngest in the country’s history – and thereby completing completing his meteoric rise to the top.

A foreign minister in the previous government, Kurz took over the OVP, rebranded its image by pushing it in a nationalist direction and became a symbol of the struggle against the “old political class”.

The Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO) came second, with 26.7% of the votes (52 seats). However, the SPO has very little to celebrate after obtaining one of the worst results in its history. The SPO had governed the country in a “big coalition” with the OVP for the past decade.

The far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) obtained 26.5% of the votes (51 seats), to become the third political force in the country.

The liberal NEOS (The New Austria) won 5.2% of the votes (10 seats) while a list headed by former Green member Peter Pilz obtained 4.2% of the votes (8 seats).

The biggest surprise was the collapse of the Greens, who obtained only 3.6% of the vote (compared to 12.4% in the 2013 election) and look set to be left out of parliament. This is despite the fact that less than a year ago, Greens member Alexander van der Bellen was elected Austria’s president.

No party will be able to form government on its own, making a coalition government inevitable. As things stand, there are only two possible scenarios.

The most probable scenario is an OVP-FPO coalition, given their electoral programs are very similar. Both parties are very conservative and nationalistic, and advocate for stricter policies on immigration and free market economics.

Technically, a refounded “big coalition” between the SPO and OVP is still possible, but seems unlikely. First, because the SPO does not have the same political weight it used to have.

Second, because Kurz seems unwilling to compromise on his radical agenda.

Third, because there is some bad blood between Kurz and Christian Kern, the outgoing SPO chancellor.

And fourth, because despite similar coalitions existing at the local level, the political programs of the two parties are quite different, making a new “big coalition” highly unlikely.

As such, the next Austrian government is most likely to be a far right one. It will join the ranks of far-right governments in power in several European countries, which includes Hungary, Poland and Ukraine.

If we add to this that the right looks set to win general elections in Italy, the immediate future of Europe does not look good.

Analysing the results of the elections, Greens member Alev Korun said both the Greens and the SPO were unable to provide a real and viable alternative to the rightist agendas of the OVP and FPO. On the contrary, during the electoral campaign the left tried to imitate the policies of the right, rather than present itself as a radical alternative.

Korun stressed that the far right has not been coherent on its conservative and nationalist principles. He said they claim that migrants do not want to integrate into the Austrian culture and lifestyle, but always oppose allocating funds to language courses or other integration policies.

Korun said the far right wants to maintain the social and economic divisions between rich and poor because inequality and social instability have been key to its electoral success.

It follows then that the far right do not have a real interest in providing real solutions to these issues. Indeed, a real and definitive solution to social injustice and inequality would most likely lead to the disappearance of the far right from the political scene.

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