Whilst few people will have been shocked by Sebastian Kurz’s victory in Austria's election last weekend, the fresh-faced future chancellor nonetheless pulled off a remarkable feat to drag his party up from disastrous opinion polls before guiding them to electoral success.
In little under six months, the 31-year-old (who is now set to become the youngest national leader in the world) completely revitalised the ailing centre-right People's Party, injecting into it a sense of purpose and vibrancy that saw them regain the momentum lost under former leader, Reinhold Mitterlehner. For only the second time since 1970, the People’s Party finished ahead of its traditional rival, the centre-left Social Democratic Party, marking a clear shift to the right by the Austrian electorate.
Kurz’s route to success will have been watched closely by other mainstream parties around Europe as they try to halt the rise of populism across the continent. For some, the young conservative successfully stopped the right-wing populist Freedom Party from winning the election - an outcome that looked a real possibility when they led opinion polls by an average of 7% at the start of the year. He did this, they argue, by fighting the hard-right on their own turf, directly responding to the electorate’s fears over immigration in a more considered manner than Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache. Others, however, claim Kurz did nothing more than steal Strache’s clothes, dragging the People’s Party far to the right in search of power.
Whatever one thinks, there’s little doubt that the Freedom Party are the overall winners of this election. With themselves and the People’s Party enjoying a combined total of 114 seats in the National Council, a coalition government comprising the two right-wing parties looks likely. Despite the impressive gains made by Kurz, the Freedom Party still managed to increase their share of the vote by 6.9%, resulting in their best showing at a legislative election since 1999. They are clearly still benefitting from widespread concerns about immigration in a country that, due to the borders it shares with both Germany and the Balkans, has long acted as a gateway to Western Europe for migrants.
Instead of helping to push back the tide of populism, Kurz has increased its ferocity. By uncritically adopting many of the Freedom Party’s most controversial views, the People’s Party leader has legitimised the language and imagery utilised by the hard-right. As he himself put it in a speech to supporters in the final days before the election: “I promise you three things. Lower taxes for low and middle-earners, an end to benefits tourism, and no more illegal immigration.”
Kurz’s strategy since taking control of the People’s Party has been incredibly effective, but it has diminished the space between the centre- and hard-right. This has left a wafer-thin gap between the two on issues surrounding immigration and identity. He has not only talked about shutting Islamic kindergartens and banning foreign funding for mosques, but has also called on NGOs to stop rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea.
The People’s Party may have won the election, but at what cost? If, as looks to be the case, the Freedom Party becomes part of a coalition, their high share of the vote gained, coupled with Kurz’s shift to the right, would strengthen their claim to play a more fundamental role in government. Kurz has backed himself into a corner with the hard-right rhetoric he used during the campaign, as he must now continue guiding his party down this rightward path he has embarked on or else risk losing votes to the populists.
The election has shown that copying radical right policies does not marginalise radical right parties; instead, it keeps them relevant and legitimate in the eyes of the electorate.
Conservatives across Europe will be hailing Kurz’s victory as a win over populism, but he has done little more than steal the populists’ clothes and claim them as his own. Whilst he may have shown a way for centre-right parties to regain relevance in an age dominated by voter shifts to the fringes of both the right and left, his strategy has done little to halt the rise of those populist parties that continue to set the political agenda.