Case Study: Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s Boy King?

Austria’s two main parties have shared power in grand coalitions for over a decade. But now the conservative ÖVP is poised to bring the country further right.

Background

Austria uses a proportional representation system that usually ensures that no one party has a majority, and the results of 15 October’s general election were no different in that regard. What was new was the split between the centre-right and centre-left parties that have long dominated Austria’s political scene, and the far-right insurgents of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, (Freedom Party of Austria, FPÖ), which has now ended their duopoly.

The centre-left and centre-right have ruled Austria for most of the past three decades

The FPÖ picked up 26 per cent of the vote, barely less than the centre-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (Social Democratic Party of Austria, SPÖ) on 27 per cent and the 30 per cent won by the centre-right Österreichische Volkspartei (Austrian People’s Party, ÖVP) of Sebastian Kurz, a 31-year-old political prodigy who is about to become Europe’s youngest leader.

The ÖVP and SPÖ have ruled Austria for most of the past three decades. Until the elections on 15 October, they were in a fragile ruling coalition marked by major disagreements; indeed, the general election was called a year early on the insistence of Kurz, then the foreign minister.

The SPÖ has been flagging for years. It slipped from 57 seats in 2008 – at the time, its worst election result in history – to 52 in 2013, and in the latest elections its vote share remained stagnant. The failure of the SPÖ to invigorate voters can be attributed to its poor performance as the senior coalition party as well as external factors, with a surge in migration from across the Mediterranean putting pressure on left-wing social policies.

Changing of the guard

Outgoing Chancellor Christian Kern did not begin the previous government as premier. He took the position in May 2017, after previous Chancellor Werner Faymann stepped down following a disastrous result for his party in the April 2017 elections.

Sebastian Kurz also became leader of his party suddenly, in July 2017, when Reinhold Mitterlehner stepped down after losing the support of the ÖVP. Just 30 years old at the time, his party was slipping behind the SPÖ and the FPÖ in polls and loyalties were clearly divided. However, he brought a newly combative leadership style to the coalition and adjusting his party’s image to appeal to younger, urban voters, away from the ÖVP’s previous traditionalist electorate. He even changed the colour of the party from black to turquoise.

Kurz’s aggressive rebranding of his party combined with his conservative and occasionally nationalist rhetoric gained international media attention and a 7.5 per cent increase in votes.

A collapsed coalition

In many European countries, notably in neighbouring Germany, junior coalition parties tend to lose support after a term in government. In Austria, the opposite has proven true. Kern struggled to transform his party under the weight of a rapidly disintegrating cabinet.

The outgoing grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP encountered various crises during its term. In January 2017, it appeared to be on the verge of disintegration. The FPÖ was consistently polling ahead of both mainstream parties and the coalition was in deadlock over a wide range of health and social policies including introducing a minimum wage and inheritance tax. Eventually, the two parties agreed to continue to work together, but this lasted barely five months before Kurz demanded snap elections.

The ‘Schmutzkübel’ scandal

The election campaign only made matters worse for the struggling SPÖ. While previous Austrian election races have been bitter, this is the first to have the dubious distinction of spawning a libellous smear campaign.

In summer 2017, as the rival election campaigns were underway, Austrian media began to report on a radical Facebook page supporting Sebastian Kurz with thousands of followers. The Facebook page exhibited anti-migrant sentiment and even personal attacks against heads of prominent NGOs working with refugees. As the elections drew nearer, anti-Semitic comments were posted on the Facebook page. Meanwhile, extremely critical articles about Kurz were published on a number of news sites with close links to the SPÖ.

One month later, Austrian media outlets discovered that Tal Silberstein, a political consultant for the SPÖ, was behind the offensive Facebook pages. The scandal quickly became known as the ‘Schmutzkübel’ – bucket of filth. The tactics used by Silberstein have made this election the dirtiest political campaign in Austrian post-war history.

The SPÖ stopped paying Silberstein on 17 August, when it terminated the contract with him after he was arrested in Israel on money-laundering charges. Kern’s insistence that he was not aware of the ownership of the Facebook page has been largely accepted in Austria, and Silberstein released a statement supporting this. However, strangely, after 17 August, the anti-Semitic, xenophobic posts escalated. It remains unclear as to how – or even if – the anonymous individuals running the pages were paid after that date.

In Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, anti-Semitic statements carry heavy legal penalties. The ÖVP argued that the social media posts violated Austria’s laws against anti-Semitism and racism, and launched a lawsuit. From that point on, the campaign was drowned out by mutual accusations and lawsuits between the two coalition parties.

The death of the left?

Even before the Schmutzkübel scandal developed, Kern and the SPÖ had slipped behind the ÖVP in the elections. Growing social challenges brought Austrians towards the right. At 8.3 per cent, unemployment is at its highest rate since the 1950s, while at the same time, thousands of refugees have arrived in Austria. In 2015, 90,000 people applied for asylum in Austria, equivalent to 1 per cent of the population.

Additionally, Austrians have become frustrated with constant spats between the SPÖ and ÖVP. The FPÖ profited handsomely from this perception, gaining 5.5 per cent of votes in the legislative election and only narrowly losing the 2016 presidential vote.

The FPÖ has built on the fertile conditions for its growth by considerably toning down its Eurosceptic rhetoric and launching a highly professional, multi-platform campaign. Its evolution has been successful enough to overcome damning revelations about the neo-Nazi past of the party’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache.

The Austrian left will be somewhat muted during this parliamentary term

One left-wing group will disappear entirely from parliamentary politics. Die Grünen, the ecologist party in Austria, failed to reach the 4 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation for the first time in more than 30 years, dropping from 24 seats to none. This is despite the election of a president supported by the party in December 2016. Die Grünen has suffered from poor public perceptions of the leadership, and like the SPÖ, has changed significantly from its original manifesto. The party is no longer strongly pacifist or anti-militarist. The party’s dramatic drop in popularity is also partly due to the exit of a leading member, Peter Pilz, who formed his own parliamentary list in July 2017 and won eight seats.

Thus, the Austrian left will be somewhat muted during this parliamentary term, accentuated by the SPÖ’s shift towards the right. Whether the downward trend will be sustained depends on the success of the future government.

Outlook

Even though the FPÖ finished third, Kurz is likely to attempt to form a coalition with the far-right party. There is little appetite for another ineffective centrist government riven by infighting. There are multiple similarities between the ÖVP and FPÖ; indeed, Heinz-Christian Strache of the FPÖ accused Kurz of ‘stealing’ his party’s rhetoric and policy on immigration. The two parties are also closely aligned on economic matters, with both favouring major income tax reductions for individuals and corporations.

However, there is a key condition that the FPÖ placed on any future coalition talks before the elections: the party will only enter into a government if it is given the interior ministry. This is a key ministry, and Kurz will be unwilling to give such an important job to a junior coalition partner.

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