The election result in Austria is making headlines around the world, but it isn’t too surprising.
It was obvious that Austria’s electorate was pretty fed up with decades of the “big coalition” between the two big parties — the center-right ÖVP and the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ). The far-right Freedom Party FPÖ had managed to capitalize on that feeling. And heading for the parliamentary election, FPÖ was in a clear lead in the opinion polls.
During the course of the election season, the ÖVP crashed the coalition government, triggered an early election and rapidly moved to embrace key parts of the nationalist agenda. And they were not alone — even the SPÖ joined the race to outflank the FPÖ on messaging.
In the end, on Sunday, the ÖVP’s 31-year-old popular leader, Sebastian Kurz, clearly won. The party had shot up in the polls by mobilizing previous non-voters and gained votes primarily from the FPÖ, securing first place and Kurz’s claim to the chancellorship.
In one of its election posters, FPÖ claimed that it had been leading on issues of “refugees, border controls and Islamization,” claiming that other parties have copied FPÖ. It’s a claim that’s somewhat exaggerated, but not without a disturbing kernel of truth.
There is no doubt that these issues have played a large role in Austria’s politics as well as other elections in Europe, despite the fact that economic improvement has made issues of migration less pressing.
But now, it is perhaps possible to talk about a new belt of areas along the Danube — Hungary, Austria, Bavaria — where these are now the defining political issues. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is playing nasty populist games, presenting himself as defender of the nation against alleged conspiracies to flood his country with dangerous Muslims. In Bavaria, Germany, the CSU (sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU), after having performed very badly in the recent federal elections, is making no secret of its belief that Budapest, rather than Berlin, should be listened to on these issues.
It was certainly in these Danubian lands that the meltdown of previous policies during the refugee crisis of fall 2015 was most clearly felt — from Budapest’s Central Station to the Central Station of Munich. Austrians were certainly primarily busy in making certain that refugees transited their country as fast as humanly possible. And since then, politics in these lands has been dominated by border checks, ceilings for migrant numbers and rumbling fears of Muslims and mosques. It was only when the barbed wire was rolled out along the Balkan route that a sense of control of the situation returned. But the trauma of those weeks is still very much there — and clearly colors the politics of the region in a decisive way.
In all probability, Austria will see Kurz forming a coalition with the FPÖ party (which came in third), with leading FPÖ members making little secret of their claims on key ministries such as interior and foreign affairs.
Austria’s President Alexander Van der Bellen has made clear that he will only appoint a government with a European orientation. That sounds fine, but there is one Europe of Brussels and another Europe of Budapest. How much Vienna leans toward the latter will also decide its standing in the former — as well as in even more important Berlin.