Another election, another populist success. Although Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (OVP) received nearly a third of the vote, several points ahead of the SPO of the current Chancellor, Christian Kern, it was the Freedom Party (FPO) of the resurgent far-right narrowly outperforming the SPO that is the most startling result.
This is undoubtedly a personal triumph for the 31-year old Kurz. The youngest foreign minister in Europe is now front-runner to be the youngest head of government in the world. The OVP saw a marked upturn in its fortunes following his election as leader and with a highly personal campaign and policy programme, he is in a very strong position to form the next government.
Yet by aping the language and programme of the far right in order to undercut their support and be returned as the largest party, is Kurz sailing too close to the wind? In order to win, he has taken the OVP much further to the right than at any time in its recent history. Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, which is enjoying its best result since 1999, has accused Kurz of being “an imposter” in trying on Freedom Party policies. Indeed, Kurz has heavily emphasised the defence of both Austrian and European borders, the dangers of mass immigration, and strongly attacked the ability of the political establishment to address the real concerns of the electorate.
As you sow, so shall you reap. In the UK we have the example of David Cameron, who, in response to the anti-European threat from UKIP, gave more and more ground – until the European referendum overthrew his policy and destroyed his premiership. The British example suggests that accommodation with the nationalist right – you could even call it appeasement – does not work.
Trump and Brexit are not purely Anglo-Saxon phenomena. In fact it looks far more likely that the Anglo-Saxons have merely led the way last year down this particular ugly path. As we have seen so far in 2017, the Front National in France, AfD in Germany, and now the Freedom Party in Austria (besides the very narrow defeat of their candidate for Chancellor, Norbert Hofer, last year), have all received large vote shares – and entered parliaments in significant numbers.
Ultimately, looking like something risks the danger of becoming the thing itself. This has never been put better than Orwell’s warning from Animal Farm:
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
What will Sebastian Kurz turn out to be? Time will tell. One thing is for certain though, and that is that European elites are kidding themselves if they think they have halted the far right and not merely stalled them. Whether he chooses to continue the grand coalition, form a government with the Freedom Party, or attempt to govern as a minority administration, Kurz will be at the sharp end of this. Conservatives from across Europe will be watching.