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22 November 2019

Austrian Head-Scratchers

"Austrian politics over the last six months has been marked by a series of head-scratching twists and turns. An executive summary: September’s snap elections revealed (yet again) clear majority support for the two conservative parties, which had jointly governed until May. Yet six weeks later, we are on the verge of a left-wing party entering the Austrian government – not only left-wing, but the most left wing – the Green party!"


Austrian politics over the last six months has been marked by a series of head-scratching twists and turns. An executive summary: September’s snap elections revealed (yet again) clear majority support for the two conservative parties, which had jointly governed until May. Yet six weeks later, we are on the verge of a left-wing party entering the Austrian government – not only left-wing, but the most left wing – the Green party!

With that, the election winner Sebastian Kurz (our conservative ex-chancellor), continues on his campaign of political surprise. Kurz had initially vaulted to the top of his party leadership (the ÖVP) by railing against it – mainly for dithering for a decade in a moribund coalition government with its left-leaning socialist-democratic counterpart, the SPÖ. Both of Austria’s big-tent parties had embraced Berlin’s open-door migration policy, prompting a mass exodus for the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). This had all suddenly made the FPÖ, when the grand coalition dissolved, the most popular party in Austria.

As Foreign Minister during the migration wave of 2015 and 2016, Kurz stuck his neck out beyond his governing coalition and pursued his own migration programme: he teamed up with other Balkan states to help Macedonia block migration at its southern edge. This move – along with Hungary’s own blockade – caused a massive drop in migrant flows on the Balkan route. This seemed appropriate; after all migration is more of a burden for Austria than it is for Germany.

With this, Kurz’s popularity exploded. He was launched not only to the apex of his party, but then triumphed in the 2017 elections. His traditional conservative Austrian party was, after years in the wilderness, once again back on top.

As a second move, bringing him even more popular acclaim, he brought in the FPÖ – a right wing populist party most similar to the AfD in Germany, or the Lega in Italy – into the new coalition government. This transition in power enraged the left, but was nonetheless popular in Austria, as the new government worked well together and kept the economy humming. This “black-and-blue” coalition also tightened up further on migration. (Something seldom mentioned: in 2018, Austria boasted more legal asylees than any other country, when taking geographic size into account.)

In early 2019, the rifts between the two governing parties began to show, but no one took this too seriously. The FPÖ’s detractors (likely from the smoke-filled rooms of the now defeated SPÖ) had done their best to compile a dossier of evidence painting the FPÖ as a neo-Nazi movement. This was a flop though – when your best evidence of scandal within the FPÖ are 14-year-old songbooks belonging to a fraternity loosely connected to the party, then have you not proven that the modern FPÖ is, in fact, scandal-free?

Let us be clear here: after the war, the FPÖ – much more than the two big-tent parties – indeed was a gathering place for former Nazis. It did think along ethnic-national lines, and emphasised that ethnically German peoples belonged together. But after the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, all Austrian parties longed to be connected to Germany – not because they were “Nazis,” but out of a sense of greater German unity. This is an important distinction often muddied in political rhetoric – sometimes intentionally.

Today, however, all the Nazis are dead. And virtually nobody in modern Austria thinks or talks about “greater Germany”. The FPÖ’s party long-time chairman H. C. Strache, during his 14-year leadership, cleared out all the dead wood, and transformed the FPÖ into a truly patriotic Austrian party. Still, one could gradually see that Chancellor Kurz was increasingly annoyed with the left-leaning journalists (yes, even in Austria) constantly peppering him with questions about newly-discovered songbooks and other such nonsense.

But the FPÖ-haters had a real breakthrough when they dropped a legitimate political bombshell in May – this time having nothing to do with the hackneyed accusations about the FPÖ’s Nazi past. This time, they had two-year-old hidden-camera footage of Strache in a drunken stupor, making wildly corrupt promises to a (likely fake) Russian oligarchess, in exchange for cash to the FPÖ. Strache’s words captured on video, and released days before the 2019 European elections, were so scandalous that Strache resigned as Vice Chancellor and head of his party within hours. He immediately became an untouchable. It should be mentioned that his resignation was absolutely warranted as a way to keep Austrian politics clean – even if the origin of the video remains one of the most head-scratching puzzles in Austria today.

The trap that Strache fell into was so professional in its execution, one cannot help but to suspect that an intelligence agency is behind it. For all we know, it could have been well-financed left-wing activists, paid to stage the event. All we know for certain is that a Viennese lawyer with Iranian background, who is close to the SPÖ, organised the video’s disclosure to German left-wing media (specifically, Der Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung). Two court decisions have ruled that the disclosure was unlawful, but the lawyer refuses to reveal the identity of his client, under attorney-client privilege.

As for Strache, he himself was spared in the justice system. Because he made his corrupt promises months before becoming Vice Chancellor, he held no office at the time the video footage was captured. And hence, he escaped liability and punishment under the law.

With Strache now gone, it seemed that the conservative coalition would be preserved – until Kurz also demanded the resignation of FPÖ Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, who was not wrapped up in the Strache affair at all. This action unleashed a chain reaction (too lengthy and complex for this space) that ultimately led to September’s snap elections.

Despite Kurz’s decision to blow up his own government, he then moved adroitly. The Austrian people now viewed the FPÖ and SPÖ as the bad guys, after they moved to a vote of no confidence against Kurz – now left ruling without a coalition partner. The Austrian voters then punished both the FPÖ and the SPÖ in the snap elections. The FPÖ dropped 10 points (from 26 to 16 per cent), the SPÖ dropped 6 points (from 27 to 21 per cent). Meanwhile, Kurz’s party picked up support – cruising from 32 to 38 perc ent. The second big winner of the night were the Greens (as they had picked up enough support to return to parliament), and the third winner of the night was the NEOS (a business-friendly, socially liberal party).

As the election result became clear, most observers anticipated a repeat of the ÖVP–FPÖ coalition, for several reasons:

   Kurz’s party had run on the platform of a “reliable centre-right policy” with an emphasis on resisting migration – only achievable with the FPÖ as a partner.

   The FPÖ had run on a platform of continuity continuity of the previous government and its policy programme.

  Despite the FPÖ’s losses, the ÖVP and FPÖ could mathematically still build a majority government again.

   All of the polls indicated strong public backing for another “Black–Blue” coalition.

But something else was in store. Kurz surprised us all by ditching both the FPÖ and the SPÖ, and entering coalition talks with the Green Party. As of publication time, it is still not clear whether a Black–Green coalition will ultimately come to pass – in fact, nothing is quite certain yet.

But if talks between the ÖVP and the Greens ultimately break down, Kurz has put all of the other possible coalition combinations in a tough position – especially since the ongoing Black–Green negotiations are dragging out so long. One could then reasonably ask: why has Kurz devoted so much time to building this new Black–Green coalition (particularly when Austria has waited six months without a government at all), considering that the two parties agree on very little in their respective policy platforms? The Greens are radically pro-immigration, and itching to implement their unduly burdensome “Save the Planet” climate policy. Meanwhile the ÖVP’s focus is on tax relief and balanced budgets.

But that is why I believe we will get a Black–Green coalition. Indeed, the FPÖ itself opened the door for Kurz to approach the Greens. Norbert Hofer, the new FPÖ boss, expressed on election night that with 16 per cent the FPÖ had “no governing mandate”. This abdication of responsibility amounts to a betrayal of the FPÖ voters; those who stuck with the party did so to ensure a continuation of conservative governance and tight border control – they certainly did not vote for the FPÖ with the grand aspiration of becoming an opposition party.

This much is clear: despite the post-electoral shifts in power, Kurz could have pulled the FPÖ out of the ditch and chosen them as a governing partner, had he been willing to give them a pep talk and make them a reasonable offer. But clearly, he has not wanted to do that – at least not for the last six weeks.

So under Sebastian Kurz’s leadership, Austria now faces the second of the big head-scratching enigmas (the first being the still unanswered question of how the Strache video came into existence): what inspired Kurz to execute this pair of political chess moves? (The first being in May, when Kurz groundlessly kicked Kickl out, leading to the collapse of the coalition; the second being the inexplicable turn to the Greens as a new governing partner.) Are these two moves somehow connected as part of a larger political stratagem?

There are a few possible explanations:

1. Kurz, despite his soft and polished exterior, is in reality a hard-nosed power player, who merely disposes of political obstacles whenever needed. First he did this within his own party, then he chucked out both the SPÖ, and then later the FPÖ. The Greens are now all he has left. Perhaps one can attribute this inability to compromise to his youthful age (33), which could account for a basic naivety – a lack of understanding that in politics you frequently must work with people you may not get along with.

2. Alternatively: Kurz has kompromat on Kickl, and the Austrian people do not know about it yet.

3. Or alternatively once again: Did Kurz bank on an even greater election victory, when he used the Strache crisis to force snap elections? Kurz’s predecessor Wolfgang Schüssel steered his party to 42-point victory in 2002, under similar circumstances (the dissolution of a Black–Blue coalition). But surely Kurz is not so divorced from reality that he had actually dreamt of an absolute majority for his ÖVP – in which case his preferred partner would have been the NEOS. But now, with the actual election results, he cannot build a coalition with the NEOS, which again leaves only: the Greens.

4. Still another explanation: Kurz likes campaigning, but not governing. Governing is too much work.

5. Yet another explanation is becoming more and more plausible: by hobnobbing with his many European contacts, built up through his work as Foreign Minister and now Chancellor, Kurz has been socialised to prefer the Greens. He has plainly enjoyed his globetrotting, even if he could not manage a full-blown state visit in Trump’s White House. But the modern European triumvirate of Macron–Merkel–Juncker doubtlessly sent a message to Kurz: if you want to be a player on the European stage, ditch the red-headed stepchild FPÖ. The motives of the European power-trio here are clear – in Germany and France, incumbents want to shore up their power as a bulwark against the unrelenting rise of “the natives”, i.e. the right-wing populists. They saw in the Austrian right-wing coalition (which incidentally many in Germany thought quite well of) a dangerous precedent for the rest of Europe.

Lest you think this is a conspiracy theory, look at the triumvirate’s stance toward Italy. With Matteo Salvini in power, Europe straight-armed the Italians. But as soon as a left-leaning coalition came to power, all the problems vanished: the European Commission officially declared that Italian budget deficits are unproblematic, and Germany and France (along with the lefty-ruled Portugal, Ireland and Luxembourg) are suddenly happy to help Italy resettle most of the “refugees” that the NGO boats drop off there.

If it is not already obvious that Kurz is drifting this year from bold leadership toward the lefty European mainstream, just look at his stance toward Hungary: during the 2017 campaign, Kurz and Strache argued during a televised debate over who had closer ties to Viktor Orbán. But in 2019, when it came to defending his isolated neighbour in the halls of Brussels and within the European People’s Party, Kurz was nowhere to be found.




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