Austrian voters have just thrown their lot firmly behind the center-right and far-right political parties, shifting the political future of the landlocked country — and potentially that of Europe itself.
At the center of Austria’s political shift is Sebastian Kurz, a 31-year-old wunderkind who rode a wave of anti-immigrant anxiety to position himself as the country’s probable next chancellor and the world’s youngest leader. (Final results won’t be in until after several hundred thousand mail-in ballots are counted.)
Kurz, who currently serves as Austria’s foreign minister, advocates a hard line on welcoming migrants. He has decried the distribution of social benefits for newcomers and noted that it was his work as foreign minister that shut down the so-called “Balkan” route asylum seekers were taking over land toward Austria and Germany. He has been accused of reaping his ideas from the country’s far-right party, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which was founded by actual Nazis in the 1950s. But he is also seen as doing so with a softer hand, and a kinder voice.
He has also advocated for a change in tax policy — dramatically lowering taxes — which appeals to those who feel the Austrian welfare state is too much of a drain on personal coffers.
“This is a clear mandate for change,” Kurz told a rapturous crowd in Vienna on Sunday evening after polls closed. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We need to create a new political style and a new political culture.”
Who is Sebastian Kurz?
The Austrians call him Wunderwuzzi — “the whiz kid.” He took over the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in May. It was Kurz who called for snap elections in late spring, reading the political temperature and realizing the country was ripe for a political realignment toward the right.
Though the People’s Party has been around for decades, Kurz hit the party with an ambush makeover, bringing the party into the social media age. He even changed the party’s name from just the People’s Party to “The Sebastian Kurz list — The New People's Party.” The party posters read, “Time for something new.”
He gathered up newcomers to join his political list — inviting some who had never before served in government, and began to propel the party on charisma. If that sounds like France’s Emmanuel Macron, it’s meant to — but unlike Macron, who launched a brand new political party, Kurz had the benefit of working with a party structure that’s been around for 30 years.
Kurz himself is known as much for style as for substance, with crisp suits and stylishly coiffed hair. He is unmarried (though he lives with his girlfriend).
And he’s long wanted to bring his party into the millennial era — his era, in other words.
Kurz was born in 1986. Donald Trump was married to Ivana; Ivanka was a mere 4 years old. Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, and Kurt Waldheim, a man who controversially had his own Nazi past, was campaigning to take the helm in Austria.
Kurz became minister for integration at age 24; three years later, at age 27, he was named foreign minister.
He was introduced on the international stage at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in 2014. He took the podium that year, all of 28 at the time, and relished in both his age and the improbability of his position. “I believe I’m the only person under the age of 30 who has the privilege of speaking this week,” he told the UNGA, to applause.
“What I can offer is the perspective of a young generation,” he continued, defining that as a “post-Cold War generation” — millennials, in other words.
“We grew up in a society where human rights were respected, where the rule of law was a given, and where religious freedom was practiced,” he intoned. “We communicate without borders on Facebook and Twitter.” He then went on to talk about the rise of religious extremism and terrorism.
But while the UNGA introduced his face, it was in 2015 that Kurz really found his footing — in the midst of the migration crisis.
Austrian voters weren’t all that happy about their newcomers
At the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015, Austria was often seen as a way station rather than a final destination for refugees seeking new lives in Europe. That image isn’t exactly correct: Some 90,000 refugees settled in Austria that year, a country of just under 9 million people.
At first, there were joyful images of Austrians meeting refugees in train stations. But soon that sentiment shifted to worry.
In November 2016, Kurz sat down with the Financial Times. He applauded his country for taking such a large number of refugees — more than the US or Canada had welcomed, he noted. Then he shifted gears and began to speak about how the welcome mat needed to be rolled up. Uncontrolled migration, he said, “overburdens our system and cannot function.”
“It is not an Austrian phenomenon,” he continued. “Luckily Europe, step by step, recognized that these mass refugee movements to Europe cannot work.”
That position has become more and more mainstream in Europe. In Germany this year, Angela Merkel’s refugee policy became a turning point of the elections.
This past July, Kurz very publicly berated his Italian counterparts for not doing enough to stop migration, calling on them to do more to keep migrants from arriving on Europe’s shores and stop them from continuing northward.
“If Italy were to continue its transfers to the mainland, not only will Central Europe be overwhelmed, but drownings will continue”, Kurz told the Italians. He insisted as well that the international aid groups attempting to save drowning migrants crossing the Mediterranean “should not be a ticket for Central Europe.”
That kind of sentiment sounds a lot like the far right. But by midsummer, this had become an increasingly common position in Europe.
Indeed, by August, European leaders had made a bargain with the Libyans, propping up their coast guard and keeping migrants on African shores; migration dropped precipitously. Kurz, an early and outspoken voice on this issue, now no longer sounded like the far right.
“Austrians are fearful because of immigration and the refugee crisis,” Reinhard Heinisch of the University of Salzburg told the Washington Post on Monday. “Kurz addressed these fears, and played with these fears.”
Bernhard Weidinger, a researcher of the far right at the Documentation Center of the Austrian Resistance, told me that a nonpartisan poll from the Austrian monitoring group SORA found “migration was considered the No. 1 topic for this election.”
Coupled with the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in September’s German elections, the results in Austria seem to point to a Europe listing rightward. Suddenly Macron’s presidential win in France last May, firmly defeating the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and reclaiming the European center, seems an outlier moment rather than a predictor of the future. Macron’s win, coupled with the loss of populist far-right candidate Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, had seemed to show the limits of populism.
What Kurz’s win may show is that the far right may not be politically salient, but the center-right, which has borrowed some ideas from the more extreme right, is having a moment. Meanwhile, the entire political conversation has moved rightward.
“Austria is most certainly shifting to the right,” Weidinger told me. He notes that Kurz may form a ruling coalition with Heinz-Christian Strache’s far-right FPÖ, which would not only shift Austria but also possibly realign European alliances if they choose to look East rather than West.
“If you look at the bigger picture,” Weidinger said, “Austria is not the most important country, of course — but from a European perspective, a government headed by Kurz and Strache would really strengthen this illiberal bloc in the EU that now consists of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.”
He notes that on many issues, the government of Austria would still find disagreement with the countries of the East. But it would potentially complicate things for the EU, he says, in terms of the ongoing question of resettling migrants and refugees. The countries of the East have balked or put restrictions on settling migrants within their borders.