Austria’s new breed of right-wing populism: a conversation with Ivan Vejvoda

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Heinz-Christian Strache and Sebastian Kurz

“In Austria we have seen a pattern that resembles what we have seen in Germany and other countries: a rise in populism, a renationalization of politics and a resurgence of the far right. The Austrian case is particularly significant, however, because the Freedom Party (with its neo-Nazi roots going back to the 1950s) received about a quarter of the votes, with an 80% turnout – thus, in a hotly contested election. The People’s Party, led by the ‘wiz kid’ Sebastian Kurz, should not be defined as a far right movement: it is a member of the EPP group in the European Parliament, and Kurz himself has just served as Foreign Minister in a centrist coalition government. So this is not a hard-line anti-establishment party, although it has indeed captured several anti-establishment votes thanks to the ‘youth factor’ embodied by a 31 year old leader who promised to inject a new style in Austrian politics. A sort of new synthesis.”

Ivan Vejvoda is currently based in Vienna, where he works on scenarios for Europe’s future(s), starting from the observation that the continent is characterized by multiple divides – including a re-emerging East-West divide. Aspenia online has discussed with him the recent election, looking at Austria as a kind of microcosm of the wider continent’s tensions and political configurations.

“It is important to underscore that the Freedom Party lost the presidential election to a Green candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, last December. So, it is not fair to say that the country has irreversibly and clearly swerved to the right. Even the emerging coalition government will be a strange combination: given the positions taken by the two parties, it will simultaneously be pro-EU, very populist and very anti-immigrant, but also characterized by the personality of an energetic leader who has put a softer face on widespread anti-immigrant sentiments. As is the case across Europe, there is a broader framework in which citizens feel threatened by globalization, economic insecurity and rising inequality – even in a country that has one of the highest per capita GDP and rather low unemployment.

A decade of economic crisis has taken its toll, by creating uncertainty and anxiety, on top of which came the migration crisis two and half years ago through the so-called Balkan route. As a result, in a relatively small country of about 8.5 million with weak demographics, there is a perceived threat to the collective identity. Here is where Sebastian Kurz comes into the picture as the Foreign Minister who took various steps to stop the migrant flow into Austria. The Freedom Party, however, also has an overtly anti-Islamic stance: it will not be easy for Kurz to navigate between a strong pro-European position and the stark ‘identity politics’ represented especially by his future government allies.”

There seems to be a growing dilemma for Europe as a whole: how to deal with the more extreme rightist or more vehemently anti-establishment movements in a climate of rising populism and widespread “renationalization”? Is it possible – or even wise – to try and coopt a formation like Austria’s Freedom Party in the hope of gradually moderating its stance?

“Much has changed in Europe since the late 1990s and early 2000s when the EU (then at 15 members) took a very tough stance in reaction to the rise of Jörg Haider as leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, by imposing sanctions until he stepped down. To this day, several analysts believe that was not a smart way to deal with the challenge, but certainly a far right movement was a real exception to the norm at the time. Today we are getting used to a ‘new normal’, for example in the Nordic countries: in Norway, a right-wing party is in government; in Sweden, a similar party has been kept out of government; Denmark has experienced the ‘mainstreaming’ or rebranding of a  rather rightist populist party. And this clearly goes well beyond Scandinavia, with a recurring pattern and national specificities. Bulgaria, soon to hold the rotating presidency of the EU Council, also has a rightist party in government.

In any case, we need to be cautious when drawing some sort of ‘taming’ scenario in which right wing parties quickly and smoothly turn themselves into perfectly acceptable and moderate conservatives. In Austria, it will be interesting to see whether the new Chancellor will avoid giving the Foreign Minister’s position to a member of the Freedom Party – something that would be problematic in the context of his stated pro-EU choice. To some extent, being a member of the EU is in itself a taming element, but it does not prevent forms of “democratic regression” as we are witnessing in Poland and Hungary, in terms of values and institutions. Austria may actually have a special role to play in this respect, since it often depicts itself as a natural bridge between Eastern and Western Europe, due to its historical legacy and geographical position.” 

It may be too much to ask of a relatively small country, and yet Austria is indeed a very important political experiment at this time, set not just between East and West but perhaps between Germany and the rest of Europe, as well as between the past - Mitteleuropa and the multinational Hapsburg Empire - and the future.

“We have to remember that Austria has found it difficult to deal with its past, having declared itself the first victim of Nazi Germany since 1938. As a consequence, Austrians have taken longer than others to come to terms with their history in the way that Germany, for one, has done. This is probably an enabling condition for the rise of a party with neo-Nazi roots to receive 25% of the popular vote. Still, the political system is quite dynamical: for instance, as recently as in October 2015 there was another hotly contested election, on that occasion for the mayor of Vienna, which was won by the incumbent, a Social Democrat. Therefore, since then there have been two key elections out of three (counting the presidential election of last December) for candidates of the center-left.

We should also note that Sebastian Kurz embodies a generational challenge, not just an ideological one: he is a ‘millennial’ who will have to walk a fine line and may eventually surprise us in a positive sense. He benefited from a protest vote demanding change, and we will have to see how he follows up on his bold promise to create a new political culture, beside a new style of politics.”

Read also:

Central-Eastern European identities and the EU’s polity
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The state of the European Union and Europe’s States
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