The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Austria shows the risks of dealing with the far right

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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is widely seen as the conservative golden boy of Europe. Suave and disarmingly young — he turns 33 in August — Kurz has been cast as the savior of Europe’s center-right establishment, a fresh face in a continent weary of the stoic centrism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a plausible bridge between the liberal west and more nationalist governments in Central and Eastern Europe.

Kurz came to power at the end of 2017 through a coalition between his center-right People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party. Rather than take Merkel’s well-hewn path (and that of the previous Austrian government) — a grand alliance with center-left Social Democrats — he opted for a more ideologically proximate ally. It was a pact that shocked liberal onlookers in Europe and offered the latest indication of how far-right politics were drifting into the West’s mainstream. Richard Grenell, President Trump’s outspoken envoy in Germany, hailed Kurz as a “rock star.”

But on Saturday, Kurz’s partnership with the Freedom Party — a faction founded by neo-Nazis — and its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, dramatically ended after leaked videos showed Strache promising government contracts in return for donations from a woman posing as a wealthy scion of a Russian oligarch family. Strache announced his resignation both as the country’s vice chancellor, as well as leader of his party.

“The videos, secretly recorded in a villa on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza in 2017 before the Austrian elections, included Strache telling the woman he could arrange lucrative government contracts if she acquired controlling stakes in Austria’s largest tabloid, Kronen Zeitung, and supported the anti-immigrant Freedom Party,” my colleagues reported. “But the meeting appears to have been a political sting. The woman was not the niece of a prominent Russian businessman, as she claimed. The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and the weekly Der Spiegel published clips of the video on Friday but did not say how they were obtained or how the video was made.”

The intrigues into the provenance of the videos and how they reached German media will continue. In a statement, Strache insisted that no crime was committed and that he was the victim of a “political assassination.” He also said that the incident itself was “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake.” But for Kurz, it was the last straw. “The Freedom Party has damaged the country’s image,” Kurz said to reporters. Later, he told the German newspaper Bild that investigations would determine whether Strache faces criminal liability.

Not surprisingly, Kurz and Strache shared an uneasy alliance. Before the past week’s scandal, Strache’s party courted a range of controversies. Last month, Kurz was compelled to denounce a “horrible and racist poem” penned by a Freedom Party official that likened immigrants to “rats” and suggested that cultures destroy themselves when they mix. A party campaign poster, which depicted a fair-haired white couple surrounded by a sea of swarthy, sinister-looking foreigners, drew comparisons to Nazi propaganda.

The Freedom Party’s control of the portfolio for Austria’s interior ministry led to fears of ultranationalists exploiting the country’s security apparatus; the ministry ordered raids on top Austrian intelligence operatives, measures that were seen as bids to shield the Freedom Party and its extremist contacts, and which had a chilling effect on the country’s security services. The party’s close links with the Kremlin meant the United States and European partners had started to exclude Vienna from certain intelligence sharing. Strache’s revealed willingness to sell himself to a Russian bidder reinforced the apprehensions many already had about the country’s ascendant far right.

“The images show a disturbing picture, a picture that does not represent our country. This is not who we are. This isn’t what Austria is like,” Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen told reporters. He called for fresh elections to rebuild Austrians’ trust in their government. Those elections are expected in September.

Austria is a small nation of almost 9 million people, but its current political turmoil has far wider lessons. Kurz’s gambit was once seen as a sign of things to come, a blueprint for center-right parties across the continent to seize or maintain power by co-opting the populist parties to their right through a shared hard-line approach on immigration and identity. Earlier this month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the continent’s most infamous illiberal leader, urged other center-right parties to take Kurz’s path.

But nowhere has that tactic seemed to work. In France, the once-dominant center right hopelessly plays second fiddle to the far-right National Rally led by Marine Le Pen. In Spain’s recent elections, the center right attempted to take a more nationalist, conservative line — and, instead, saw large segments of its supporters cast their ballot with an insurgent far-right party. Populist, far-right parties are expected to win significant gains in the European parliamentary elections — voting for which starts this Thursday — and often at the expense of traditional center-right factions.

“A firmly rightwing, anti-immigration stance coupled with a modern image made Kurz the darling of the Conservative wing of Germany’s Christian Democrats, exasperated by grand coalition compromises and Angela Merkel’s centrism,” noted the Financial Times. “He inspired other young mainstream right leaders, such as Pablo Casado in Spain and Laurent Wauquiez in France. But Casado tried the Kurz approach in last month’s Spanish election, with disastrous consequences. Wauquiez has recently taken to emphasizing that he is the leader of the right and of the center. Kurzism as a conservative philosophy, if it ever really existed, is finished.”

The apparent venality displayed by Strache bolstered the arguments of many critics who see Europe’s populists as cynical grifters who gladly collaborate with Russian proxies and other dubious actors. “Other mainstream European politicians facing threats from a growing far right should take heed: pandering to them doesn’t work,” wrote Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution. “For all the rhetoric of national sovereignty routinely espoused by Marine Le Pen, [Italy’s] Matteo Salvini and other populist leaders, Strache’s fall shows how these supposedly lofty ideas are a cover for opportunism and hypocrisy.”

But the current revelations may not dent their electoral fortunes, at least for now. “Austria is a small country and the other far-right parties can claim that this is not their problem,” Wolfgang Müller, the head of the University of Vienna’s government department, told Vox. “The Freedom Party’s image might suffer, but I expect national concerns in other countries will be overwhelming for foreign voters.”

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