Only days after Europe's centre-right suffered a substantial electoral reverse in Germany, capping the retirement of Angela Merkel, the European People's Party (EPP) has seen a dramatic fall from grace – and office – of a second high-profile leader. The resignation of Austria's chancellor Sebastian Kurz, embroiled in a scandal about influence peddling, takes off stage a man seen by many in the party as its most effective model of a new more right-wing challenge to the politics of populism that have eroded the base of Europe's centrist parties.
Kurz has stepped aside, many believe temporarily, as prosecutors investigate claims his entourage used finance ministry cash to pay for advertising currying favourable coverage and polls in the right-wing press. Over the last two years, the Österreich media group is reported to have received €1.33 million for advertisements placed by the ministry. Kurz denies involvement and says he is resigning to clear his name.
His success in Austria, and his popularity among many on the centre-right, lay in checking the advance of the far-right Freedom Party by embracing much of its polarising anti-immigrant, nationalist rhetoric. The new Kurz narrative, like that of Boris Johnson, and in contrast to Merkel's liberalism, offered a bridge to winning back voters across Europe lost to parties like that of Hungary's autocratic Viktor Orban. The latter, incidentally, is also accused of using state advertising monies to whip Hungary's media into line.
The European centre-right has been squeezed. In Germany, in its worst election result ever, it lost power after 16 years in charge. In France, where five of the eight Fifth Republic presidents since 1958 have been conservatives, the traditional centre-right has not won any national elections since 2007. In Italy, Christian Democrats co-governed for nearly half a century after the war, but over the past two decades the right has increasingly radicalised and fragmented.
Kurz's eclipse should check the impulse to move sharply to the right, although rhetoric from Michel Barnier, campaigning for the French right's support, suggests this is still fertile ground.
But populists are not having it all their own way. The wave, lifted though not created by Donald Trump's 2016 election in the United States, has lost momentum of late. Slipping back slightly in the German elections, on Saturday populists also lost power in the Czech Republic's parliamentary elections. Prime minister Andrej Babis, a businessman who has compared himself to Trump and railed against migrants, suffered a surprising defeat and a narrow five-party majority appears able to form a government. The message to Orban, who faces elections next year, is that an opposition united front may yet dent his overwhelming majority.