Concern over immigration and a growing sense of nationalism across the globe propelled right-wing populist parties to a major victory in Austria’s national election on Sunday. Following the gains made by similar anti-immigrant and nationalist parties in Germany last month, the momentum could result in Austria’s Freedom Party, an openly anti-Islamic party, achieving power in a coalition government with the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by Sebastian Kurz. Kurz’s People’s Party won a plurality with 31.5% of the vote. The Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), which formerly dominated the government, won only 26.9%, and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), using the rhetoric of racism, nationalism, and Islamophobia, gained another 26%.
The implications of this election will affect far more than the 8.7 million citizens of Austria. The ÖVP is likely to form the new government, taking a hard line on immigration and nationalist issues. Sebastian Kurz, 31 years old and only 6 years out of University, is positioned to become the country’s new chancellor. Though not as far right as the FPÖ, Kurz implemented anti-immigration policies in his role as Foreign Minister. He closed routes through the Balkans to prevent the entry of immigrants into Austria and his party advocated the ban of full-face Muslim head coverings in public spaces. In addition, Kurz promised to further impede immigration and prevent or limit social assistance to refugees and newcomers. Given these hardline stances, the FPÖ will most likely form a coalition with the ÖVP, which will turn Austria sharply to the right, bolstering isolationist policies and lending momentum to other right-wing and populist movements in Europe.
Such a turn would certainly embolden nations such as Poland, Hungary, Croatia and others who feel that overreach from the EU impedes their states’ sovereignty, particularly in regard to immigration and refugee policies. If a right-wing government were to form in Austria, the country would become philosophically and politically closer to Victor Orban’s Hungary than to Merkel’s Germany.
Far-right and nationalist politics are not new concepts in Austria’s history, and recent history has seen some alarming trends. The FPÖ itself was founded in 1956 by former Nazi functionary and SS Officer Anton Reinthaller. In February 2000, ÖVP leader Wolfgang Schüssel formed a coalition with the FPÖ, which was then under the leadership of Jörg Haider. The EU condemned the coalition, froze diplomatic relations, and imposed sanctions, declaring that Haider was a racist, xenophobe, and Nazi sympathizer. Austria in turn complained that the EU was interfering in a democratically elected government – however, Haider did not join the government in response to this criticism, and because of a rocky relationship with Schüssel and his party. Haider later died in 2008 in a car crash.
In recent years, both parties have made the threat of Islam a centerpiece of their policies and rhetoric. Kurz’s ÖVP is less extreme, but supports fining migrants if they do not attend integration and language classes. The FPÖ, on the other hand, calls for dropping such classes completely.
Incumbent Chancellor Christian Kern, representing the SPÖ, said his party was “not thrilled with the result,” but that they could live with it. Kern acknowledged the turn to the right as symptomatic of other similar political reactions in Europe.