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18 May 2017

Austria turns to the right

2017 is the year of elections in Europe, and Austria couldn’t have been an exception. The Austrian chancellor, Cristian Kern, announced that the political parties agreed on having early elections on 15 October. By then, Austria will be the 5th EU country to hold elections, after the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and Germany.

The next election was to be held in autumn 2018. For months, Kern’s coalition government, comprised of his Social Democratic Party (SPO) and the conservative People’s Party (OVP), was struggling with disputes over reforms. The Austrian political scene is one of the most fertile grounds where right-wing ideals can grow.

Until Tuesday, the populist Freedom Party (FPO) was leading the polls for more than a year, with support of over 30%. In December’s presidential elections, the FPO candidate was defeated with a narrow margin, indicating that the Austrian citizens are starting to mistrust the traditional parties. Herbert Kickl, the general secretary for the FPO, attacked the government, saying that “you should get up one after the other and apologise to the people for how you messed up. You must not only be taught what the topics are, you not only need a helping hand on the election date. You must be shown how to rule better.”

The way that FPO members express their views, are echoing the times of when the late Joerg Haider was leading the party. Haider vigorously opposed immigration and Islam, and led the party into a coalition government in 2000. His controversial views provoked a series of reactions in Austria and abroad. It was the only time that several countries imposed mild diplomatic sanctions on a European Union member country. Haider’s death seems that it didn’t stop the populists from rising.

The Conservatives are already preparing for the elections, trying to bring voters on their side. On Sunday, members of the OVP elected the current foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, as the one that will lead the party to the parliamentary elections. The 30-year old’s election made the party’s popularity rating jump from 20% to 35%, in just a few days.

Kurz was given the authority to re-model the party, in a move that the national media described as “the end of Austria’s postwar political order.” Kurz said during a press conference, that “we decided to start a movement that will value existing strengths inside the party, but at the same moment we will bring new people onboard.” Despite his young age (born in 1986), Kurz’s ideas are not so far from what the FPO believes.

Last year, Kurz was the one to organise a meeting in Vienna, where foreign ministers from the Balkans attended to discuss immigration problems, and the sealing of the western Balkan refugee passage. The young foreign minister had lobbied hard for the ringfencing of Greece, after failing to force the country’s government into pushing back boats in the Aegean Sea.

Sebastian Kurz supports the end of negotiations for Turkey’s integration in the EU. After the Turkish constitutional referendum in April, Kurz said that events in Turkey are not compatible with European values. “I have been unfortunately correct in my skepticism when it comes to Turkey, which is continuously moving away from Europe. Turkey’s accession in the EU is not an option. Turkey is still an important neighbour to Europe and we need a clear and strong treaty,” added the Austrian foreign minister.

After Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election, Kurz congratulated him for beating the left-wing policies. His party wants to transform Kurz into “an Austrian Macron” and plans a swift election campaign that will develop in the summer. With Sebastian Kurz as chancellor, Austria will probably take a right turn on its policies, and for now, polls show that the citizens are in approval.