13 October 2017

This Sunday, Austrians will head to the ballot box for parliamentary elections. In December’s presidential elections, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer was defeated only after the ballot was re-run. Latest polls show the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), headed by the foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, leading with 33%. Behind them, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) currently polls second with 27%, while the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) comes third with 23%. Other contenders, notably Liste Pilz (5%), Neos (6%), and Greens (5%), remain marginal.

A right-wing government is possible, but far from guaranteed

Much points to a coalition of the centre and far right, following Sunday’s elections. After Kurz’ election as the new centre-right leader in May this year, he pulled his party out of their coalition with the Social Democrats which had governed the country for the last ten years, and begun a campaign built around the promise of change. The recent “Schmutzkuebel” (dirt bucket) campaign scandal that saw the Social Democrats employ fake news to harm the centre-right ÖVP has disrupted the relationship between the parties even further. A renewed coalition of both parties following Sunday’s vote therefore seems unlikely.

The Austrian electoral system rarely creates absolute majorities so Kurz’s ÖVP would need a partner to replace the Social Democrats. Even a broad coalition of the ÖVP with all the three minor parties is unlikely to give enough seats for a stable government. The far-right FPÖ may be the only alternative. Although Kurz himself has not yet voiced his preference regarding coalition partners, the general message from his party is that a coalition with the FPÖ is on the table.

So is a centre and far-right coalition a fait accompli? Not quite. Even if the ÖVP wins a relative majority and offers a coalition, some in the FPÖ are sceptical of joining such an alliance. The far-right are fearful following their electoral decimation after a spell as a junior coalition partner in 2002 (a familiar experience for UK Liberal Democrats and the FDP in Germany). But it’s likely that they will ultimately settle for power and posts.

A renewed centre-right and Social Democrat coalition should not be ruled out. Rumours abound that the Social Democrat’s leader, Christian Kern, might step back after an electoral defeat. This could allow the defence minister, Hans Peter Doskozil, to become the new SPÖ leader, offering a fresh start for ÖVP-SPÖ relations.

Austria has seen an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition before

While the creation of centre-right and far-right coalition would mean a drastic shift of policy in Austria, it would not be unprecedented. The two parties joined forces at the federal level in 2000, governing for seven years. Back then, the alliance led to a Europe-wide outcry, with EU members threatening to boycott Austria politically and refuse bilateral contact. A delegation of international observers led by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari was sent to the country, but ultimately concluded that the coalition was abiding European values and acting in accordance with European law.

As Europe’s political landscape has changed over the years, such a reaction seems unlikely today. Far-right (and indeed far-left) parties have emerged or strengthened in most EU member states, in many cases scratching at the door of government. Moreover, with the EU caught up in internal conflicts with Hungary and Poland already – and Brexit and Catalonia causing additional headaches – it is unlikely that Brussels or other European states would pick a significant fight with Vienna.

Is Austria shifting to the right? Yes, and No.

Comparisons between the FPÖ’s expected success and the recent rise of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland or France’s Front National should not be exaggerated. While all three campaign on an anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and Eurosceptic platform, their position in their domestic political landscapes differs vastly. The FPÖ is an established force in Austrian politics for more than two decades, and has not only governed at federal level, but currently forms part of two state-level governments (Burgenland with the SPÖ; Oberösterreich with the ÖVP). It has continually obtained more than 10 percent of votes in federal elections since 1990, even receiving 26.91 percent in 1999 and 20.51 percent in the last elections in 2013. They won the Presidential ballot in December (and only lost on a re-run). The far-right’s current polling at 25% and chances of joining the government are, to some extent, a continuation of the past rather than the radical disruption of a traditionally centrist status quo. Nevertheless, the threat the far-right Freedom Party poses to Austria’s liberal and open society remains very real.

While still radical on many issues, the FPÖ has gradually lost its image as a pariah in Austrian politics. Even Social Democratic leader Christian Kern in June declared he was, in principle, open to a federal coalition with the FPÖ. The centre of Austrian politics lies significantly more to the right than in Germany, where the notion is fixed that there must be no democratically legitimate party right of the CSU. The FPÖ has gradually established itself in Austria’s political mainstream.

As the main opposition party during the last ÖVP-SPÖ coalition, the FPÖ was able to capitalise on public discontentment over the refugee crisis and shift Austria’s overall political debate to the right. In an attempt to win back voters that moved on to the FPÖ over disappointment with the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition’s policies on immigration and integration, the ÖVP under Kurz has gradually shifted its own rhetoric to the political right on many issues. Calling proposals to ban face veils an “artificial debate” as recently as 2014, Kurz now backs the idea, as well as further proposals to clamp down on illegal immigration. The SPÖ is slowly but surely following the trend as well, demanding harsher measures against illegal immigration and limitations to migration from Eastern Europe. (We have of course seen similar trends elsewhere in Europe, for example in the Netherlands).

Possible implications for Europe

With Austria taking up the presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2018, its government’s policy towards Europe is crucial. Sebastian Kurz has repeatedly stressed his commitment to Europe, stating that “for a small country like Austria, which is dependent on exports and located in the centre of Europe, there is no alternative to European integration”. Fears of an Austrian right-wing government threatening to boycott or even leave the EU are largely unfounded, with Kurz declaring an end to “flirts with Öxit”. Still, he voiced his demands for “a Union that abstains from interfering in minor issues, and strives for more cooperation on the big questions” such as the fight against terrorism. On Juncker’s roadmap for EU-reform, Kurz clearly sees himself in favour of scenario four: doing less, more efficiently.

How this view will go marry with the reform proposals of French President Emmanuel Macron remains to be seen. Immediately after Macron’s speech this September, Kurz agreed that “We need a change of course in Europe”. Reforms to make the EU more efficient, such as a reduction of the number of Commissioners, are likely to have his backing. Demands of a more “social union” or a Europe of multiple speeds will fall on deaf ears in Vienna. Kurz is generally in favour of improving European cooperation on military research and joint investments, yet holds the clear line that any Austrian involvement in a European defence union or European army would be irreconcilable with the country’s commitment to neutrality, an assessment shared by the FPÖ.

A new Austrian government built around the ÖVP will inevitably push for stronger controls at the EU’s external borders. Kurz, who already played a decisive role in organising the closure of the Balkan route in 2015, demanded in August that “the Mediterranean route needs to be closed now”. Illegal immigrants need to be “stopped at the [EU’s] external border [and] brought back to the countries of origin and transit” he said, adding that “reception camps in Libya or other Northern African states, operated by international organisations” should be established to support this policy. Both SPÖ and FPÖ broadly back these measures. All three parties oppose continued EU accession negotiations with Turkey, and support the accession of Serbia in the near future.

Will the FPÖ create an obstructive Austria in Europe?

Fears abound of Austria becoming an obstructive force inside the EU once a right-wing government takes charge. The proposals made by the far-right FPÖ leader Heinz Christian Strache, that Austria should align itself more closely with the Visegrad Group (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia) and possibly even join them, has worried many. Strache’s strict opposition to any relocation or resettlement of refugees, will render new compromises on migration policy difficult.

If the FPÖ are a junior partner in a coalition, they will be constrained. Yes, an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition would push the EU to take a tough stance on immigration and security, and would fight to keep powers at national level where possible. It would seek closer ties with countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Austria’s historic “sphere of influence”, and seek to prevent or slow down the creation of a multiple-speed Europe. Nevertheless, Austria would remain a constructive actor in the EU. Sebastian Kurz and his ÖVP do not see any gain for Austria from weakening or destroying the EU.