The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Austria heads to the polls, the far right eyes what may be this year’s biggest European success

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz is the designated leader of the People's party, ÖVP. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)

BERLIN — Austria could be set for a turn to the right, as voters there head to the polls on Sunday in an election that's being closely watched across Europe.

One of the most likely results, according to polls, is a coalition between the right-wing populist Freedom party and the center-right ÖVP party. The Freedom party is expected to make significant gains, possibly paving the way for its best election result in over a decade.

What's at stake? 

When neighboring Germany held its election less than a month ago, the far-right Alternative for Germany made significant gains. The political center still held, however, putting Chancellor Angela Merkel on track for a fourth term. Her party's losses were widely linked to her decision to allow more than one million refugees into the country within four years.

In Austria, the backlash against liberal policies has been much more pronounced. As a member of the European Union, Austria could resist efforts by Germany and France to reform the E.U. and to expand cooperation on issues such as immigration.

The center-right candidate considered most likely to win the chancellorship, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, has already rejected E.U. reform proposals by French President Emmanuel Macron. As foreign minister, Kurz also pursued policies designed to stop the influx of immigrants, even if some of those measures contradicted E.U. rules. Sunday's elections could turn some of those measures into longer-term solutions embraced by the country's political mainstream.

Who are the main contenders? 

Sebastian Kurz (center-right candidate)

The ÖVP is expected to come in first or second after essentially reinventing itself over the last months. The party's strong performance is mainly due to the 31-year-old Kurz, who assumed office as foreign minister at age 27 and could now become Europe's youngest leader.

In many ways, the energetic young candidate who could become Austrian chancellor resembles another European leader: Emmanuel Macron, who became France's youngest-ever president earlier this year. Like Macron, Kurz has attempted to position his party as a movement and has attempted to portray it as being removed from the traditional party system.

In terms of policy proposals, Kurz is positioned much further to the right than Germany's Merkel or France's Macron, however. He has adopted many of the policy proposals previously pursued by the right-wing populist Freedom party.

Heinz-Christian Strache (right-wing populist candidate)

Strache could become Kurz's coalition partner if both parties gain enough votes. Apart from policy proposals, the two also share the same academic background: They both dropped out of university.

Strache is the new face of a right-wing populist party which has been a constant component of Austrian politics for decades. The election on Sunday could finally provide Strache and his allies with the political mandate they have long sought. Their party is expected to come in second but could also still win the most votes.

Christian Kern (Social Democratic candidate) 

Current Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, however, proves how easily a party's reinvention can go off the rails. The Social Democratic candidate has gone from being the Austrian left's hopeful to the head of a party that now might come in third.

Kern might not be fully to blame for the losses. His left-wing policies might be ill-suited for a time when the majority of the country's electorate appears to have turned to the right over immigration and terrorism fears. But the Social Democrats have also contributed to destroying their own chances of winning the election by provoking a series of PR scandals and mishaps.

Is the shift in Austrian politics part of a bigger trend? 

Europe's Social Democrats 

The decline of Austria's Social Democrats is not unique to Austria. In September, Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) suffered a humiliating defeat. In Denmark, a center-right coalition ousted the country's Social Democrats two years ago. Meanwhile, France’s Socialist Party has almost disappeared out of the spotlight after it, too, suffered a major defeat earlier this year.

Some of the issues most closely associated with the Social Democrats, such as fair opportunities and labor laws, have been replaced as the top priorities among many voters who now focus on immigration and security. “Many European social democratic parties are quite divided on the issue of immigration, which is why they are refraining from discussing it,” said Tarik Abou-Chadi, a researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin, discussing the German elections last month.

Right-wing populism

Like in Austria, other European conservative or center-right parties have also adapted to the rise of the far-right by co-opting some of their core issues.

With Brexit, Britain's Conservative Party has embraced the core issue of the right-wing populist U.K. Independence Party, for example. France's conservative party similarly shifted to the right and was on track to win the elections earlier this year, but it suffered losses when its main candidate stumbled over a financing scandal. In relatively liberal Germany, Merkel has also recently rebalanced some of her policies to move further to the right — for instance, by agreeing on an upper limit on refugees — even though experts caution that some of her announcements may never translate into legislative changes.

It is unlikely that Austria's center-right party would show a similar reluctance if it gained the most votes and was able to form a right-wing coalition.

Read more: 

Win or lose in Austrian vote, the far right triumphs as rivals back policies once deemed fringe