Will Austria’s right-wing, anti-immigrant coalition return to power in upcoming elections?

Austria’s far-right FPO party faces stiff competition in Sunday’s parliamentary elections

People's Party (OVP) top candidate Sebastian Kurz and Freedom Party (FPO) top candidate Norbert Hofer wait for the start of a TV discussion in Vienna, Austria September 22, 2019 Reuters​
People's Party (OVP) top candidate Sebastian Kurz and Freedom Party (FPO) top candidate Norbert Hofer wait for the start of a TV discussion in Vienna, Austria September 22, 2019 Reuters​

Austrians will return to the ballot box on Sunday to take part in the country’s second general election in less than two years, a vote which may prefigure the rise or fall of Europe’s far-right parties across the continent.

Elections in 2017 set the stage for a coalition between the country’s far-right, populist Freedom Party (FPO) and the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OVP), ending years of centrist coalitions in Austria.

That coalition, led by the OVP’s slick, 33-year-old chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and the FPO’s Heinz-Christian Strache was blown apart after 17 months in power by scandal. The spectre of the Ibiza affair, in which Mr Strache was taped discussing Russian backing for his party in exchange for political favours on the Spanish island, has hung over the election campaign.

In the wake of Mr Strache’s resignation, the FPO has not seen its support completely implode. And, as such, Austria may prove a test-case for whether populist, anti-immigrant parties like those that have gained in popularity across western Europe in recent years can survive once they move from opposition to government.

“We had those people in power for 17 months. We felt paralysed by these changes that they tried to introduce,” Sibylle Hamann, a Green Party candidate, told The National on the campaign trail. “I thought that was very dangerous … the more you go towards a very authoritarian way of governing and that could have happened if they would have had more time,” she added.

A former newspaper columnist, Ms Hamman became a politician in July this year motivated in part by her commitment to the Green cause but also because of her opposition to the right-wing OVP-FPO government.

“The Green party is the antithesis of the blue party. That is quite obvious,” Ms Hamman said, referring to the FPO. She explained that the Ibiza affair had offered the opposition parties a chance to stop the previous coalition in its tracks. “We could not stop them to be honest … now we have the chance to rearrange things,” she added.

The Green candidate, who sits third on her party’s list in the upcoming elections, feels that the far-right in Austria exploited concerns over national identity and high emotions at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis. Like many on the continent she has identified the period after 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants entered Europe predominantly from conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, as a watershed moment.

“This hurts me so much that there is this hysteria,” Ms Hamman explained. “We ruined the public debate on an issue where we could actually be proud of ourselves. That really hurt,” she added.

According to recent polls, the Green Party has gained ground polling at between 11-13 per cent and could be a possible coalition partner to Mr Kurz. The young former chancellor has reportedly said in private that he would be open to a coalition with the party even if finding common ground on issues like a carbon tax, which the OVP opposes, would be deeply problematic.

What is clear, barring a major political upset, is that it will be the OVP that walks away to form a government.

On the streets of Vienna it is the parliamentary arithmetic that is motivating many voters, particularly when it comes to blocking the FPO’s path to power as a junior coalition partner.

In the Austrian capital’s hipster Neubau district, in one of the city’s more fashionable shopping areas Tomas Maier, a 74-year-old retired biologist, told The National he was planning on voting for the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO).

He said he viewed the party, the county’s second largest with 26.9 per cent of the vote in the 2017 elections, as really the only viable alternative to either of the former governing parties. Mr Maier said his “decision is more ideological than practical”.

Elsewhere, in Vienna’s more upmarket first district, Carla Pichler, a 24-year-old sales assistant, explained she had voted strategically for the OVP in 2017 because she had thought they were “the only party strong enough to resist the OVP and FPO”. Seeing as that tactic had ultimately been unsuccessful she said she would now be voting for the Green Party because of their social programmes and policies on migration.

Among those planning to vote for the FPO, migration remained a principal concern. Michael Hadler, a 49-year-old electrical engineer, said he believed the party was the only political force in Austria that could control immigration.

Another 52-year-old FPO voter, who identified himself only as Mr Rochrbacher, said he had been most impressed by the far-right party’s promises on bolstering security. Clearly for both the Ibiza affair had done little to dampen their enthusiasm.

Mr Hadler said the scandal did not bother him much especially following the resignation of Mr Strache. The FPO, he said, was the “only party that would be a good coalition partner for the OVP” and the scandal had not changed his opinion on the party in general.

Published: September 25, 2019 04:56 PM

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