Austria: Populists in power

The FPÖ’s latest breakthrough looks less like an aberration than part of a continent-wide continuum

 

For the second time in 20 years, the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ) is to be in government in Austria. Yet the comparatively muted response to the coalition agreement struck in Vienna at the weekend is a sign of how the ground has shifted under European politics since 2000, when the rise to power of the party then led by the late Jörg Haider prompted the European Union to impose sanctions. Today, given the extreme-right’s electoral advances in France, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere, the FPÖ’s latest breakthrough looks less like an aberration than part of a continent-wide continuum.

Against that background, the coalition led by 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz of the conservative People’s party (ÖVP) will be closely watched for answers to two big questions: how does the FPÖ wield its power, and how do its supporters react to the inevitable compromises of coalition government? The FPÖ, which was founded by ex-Nazis, will take control of the interior and defence ministries, and although it has had to abandon its proposal for a referendum on EU membership, the party’s influence is evident in the government’s opposition to Turkey’s EU accession, new restrictions on immigration, faster deportations and more stringent naturalisation rules.

For the precocious Kurz, who was sworn in as chancellor on Monday, a remarkable political rise is complete. But his celebrations will be short-lived. As foreign minister, his relationships with several European leaders, including Angela Merkel, were badly strained by his small-minded position on the refugee crisis. He will have relatively few natural allies. His coalition partners also pose a continuing threat. Kurz’s strategy has been to wrap himself in nationalist garb, normalising FPÖ discourse while attempting to appropriate its terrain. The problem with that, as Nicolas Sarkozy and others found to their cost, is that when the strategy works, it works only temporarily. Many voters, when offered the far-right or a poor imitation of it, eventually opt for the real thing.

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