In a year of surprise elections in Europe and the United States, Austria’s vote on Sunday did not disappoint. But the surprises didn’t come in the form of upsets. Overall, the polls leading up to the election proved to be accurate. As predicted, the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) led by the baby-faced foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, was the clear winner with 31.5 percent of the vote. And as predicted, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) seemed to beat out the center-left social democrats (SPÖ) to come in second with 27.1 percent. Perhaps the only surprise was that the SPÖ did not follow its fellow center-left parties toward a complete collapse and managed to make the FPÖ compete in a tight race, with a projected third-place finish of 26.8 percent.* Compared with recent electoral failures of the Socialists in France, the Social Democrats in Germany and the Labor Party in the Netherlands—all of which delivered their worst results in decades—the Austrian center-left’s showing could be considered a success. As the outgoing SPÖ Chancellor, Christian Kern, said as the votes were counted, “We are not pleased with the result, but we can live with it.”
Whereas the far-right surge seems to have been contained in Germany, where the Christian Democrats (CDU) have ruled out any notion of a coalition with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and in France, where Marine Le Pen lost the presidential elections handily to Emmanuel Macron, Austria may yet prove to be a template for how politics will increasingly work across Europe: A center-left party comes in third and considers it a success; A formerly fringe far-right party comes in second, barely failing to win, and no one bats an eye; And the center-right coopts significant parts of the far Right’s platform in order to ensure victory.
Austria has a long history with its far-right party, the FPÖ. The FPÖ, unlike its newest German cousin (the AfD, which was founded in 2013), is the oldest far-right party in Europe. Founded in 1956 by a former SS officer, it predates the more famous French National Front by almost twenty years. The party remained relatively obscure for many decades, until its charismatic leader Jörg Haider successfully pivoted it toward a more populist anti-immigrant Euroskepticism in the 1990s. But back then, immigration was not a major political issue in European politics: the European Union was expanding, economic growth was taken for granted, and head scarf controversies and minaret bans seemed inconceivable.
In identifying immigration as a key mobilizing issue, the FPÖ was ahead of the curve. Armed with a new slogan, “Austria First!” the FPÖ made large gains in every election cycle in the 1990s, eventually winning 27 percent of the vote in 1999 and becoming a coalition partner with the center-right ÖVP.
Fast forward eighteen years to 2017, and the FPÖ looks likely to become the coalition partner to the ÖVP once again. But 2017 is no repeat. Almost twenty years ago, having a far-right party in government was deemed so unsavory by the mainstream that Haider, who could have been appointed Chancellor, was denied that position, and a ministerial post as well. Other EU countries, repulsed by the idea of working with a far-right coalition government, informally boycotted Austria, blocking its participation in formal EU meetings, decreasing diplomatic relations, and imposing a non-cooperation agreement. After its five-year stint in the ruling coalition and Haider’s sudden death in 2008, the FPÖ seemed to be on its way out. Sunday’s elections proved that not only were the obituaries premature, in some important ways Haider’s main preoccupations gained traction across Europe.
What was once fringe is now mainstream, and what was once abhorrent is now business as usual. Kurz, who is likely to become the youngest head of state in Europe, ran an unabashedly anti-immigrant campaign, lending his young looks and nice smile to legitimize the platform of the far Right. In the lead-up to the elections, Kurz proudly touted his support for closing off Austria’s borders in 2016, at the peak of the refugee crisis. Not to be outdone by his FPÖ opponent, Heinz-Christian Strache, Kurz advocated for passage of the so-called burqa ban. The law, which came into force this month, prohibits any face-covering in public spaces, and has been strictly enforced by Austrian police (with some comical consequences: a citation was issued to a man dressed in a shark suit as part of a marketing campaign). As head of government, Kurz promised to cut off social benefits to non-Austrians, even if they are EU citizens living or working in the country.
The refugee crisis certainly helped fuel the far Right’s agenda. In 2015, 90,000 applied for asylum in Austria—a 200 percent increase from the year before—primarily from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. And while only 40 percent have been granted asylum thus far, and the number of asylum seekers fell to 42,000 in 2016, the Austrian government has opted to cap the number of refugees it is willing to accept at 37,500. Earlier this year, Austria also won the right to deport some asylum seekers in the European Court of Justice.
If the FPÖ enters the coalition with the ÖVP, as it is very likely to do, Austria’s hardline government will resemble that of Hungary more so than that of Germany or France. Important ministerial positions will likely go to the far Right; with the ÖVP mostly on board with the FPÖ’s agenda, there will be no denying them the spoils of victory. Norbert Hofer, the FPÖ candidate who narrowly lost the presidential election to the Green candidate, is rumored to be the next Foreign Minister. And while an “Auxit” is highly unlikely, as the majority of Austrians do not support leaving the EU, with Hofer (or another FPÖ politician) as head diplomat, Austria may become the weak link in the EU’s ability to implement a united foreign policy, particularly vis-à-vis Russia.
The FPÖ, like most far-right parties in Europe, is openly pro-Kremlin, but it stands out even among its fellow travelers in its close links with Russia. The FPÖ signed a formal cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party in 2016. Strache, the FPÖ’s leader, is a frequent visitor in Moscow, has repeatedly advocated for the removal of sanctions against Russia, and has called for closer relations between Russia and Europe. Members of the FPÖ, including Vienna’s deputy mayor, Johann Gudenus, traveled to Crimea as an “election observer” during the unlawful annexation referendum in March 2014, which he certified as free and fair against EU policy. The FPÖ’s accession will give Russia an important ally in Western Europe and could thus have far reaching implications for EU-U.S. relations as well.
Austria’s decided turn to the right may be what the future holds for countries still “safe” from the far Right in the next round of elections: an acquiescent center-right, the reinstitution of borders, and a foreign policy more in line with Russian rather than U.S. interests.
*Note: Final results were still being counted at time of writing.