Austria not entirely right


THE political news from Austria is not all bad. Yes, the right-wing, anti-immigrant conservative party of Sebastian Kurz has actually increased its electoral support winning the most votes; but the brazenly Islamophobic Freedom Party, the former governing coalition partner of Kurz’s People’s Party, saw its vote drop sharply.

It was a video exposing the sleaze and payola of the Freedom Party’s then leader Heinz-Christian Strache that brought about this snap general election. Strache was the victim of a sting mounted by an Austrian lawyer. He went to the Spanish Ibiza resort for what he believed were confidential talks with the daughter of a Russian oligarch. He was caught on camera offering the woman Austrian government contracts if she would fund his party or operations closely connected to it. Exposing the Freedom Party and its neo-Nazi leader for the amoral, money-grabbing criminals that they are triggered the collapse of the Kurz coalition.

Sunday’s election result seems to prove he and his People’ Party were in no way damaged by the Strache’s “Ibizigate” payola revelations. But even though the Freedom Party’s support dropped ten percent from 26 percent in the election two year ago, that new figure is still worrying. It means there remains a hard core of Austrian voters who are not going to let the ensnaring of one of their political heroes for corruption, in any way damage their support for a party that has variously called for the expulsion of all immigrants, the closure of mosques and the banning of any Islamic teaching.

Kurz still has to put together a coalition in order to form a government. It is thought unlikely that he will seek to renew his partnership with the now even more toxic Freedom Party neo-Nazis. Kurz is a young politician who has already demonstrated that he is a smooth operator. He was responsible for the rebranding of the People’s Party, moving it away from its past overt racism. Instead he is producing economic and social arguments, couched in highly reasonable and plausible terms, to underpin controls on the movement of migrants into Austria and a reduction in the humanitarian welcome the country extended to them. He may well envy the overt nationalism and racism of his neighboring leader Viktor Orban in Hungary but he prefers to hint at his core racist policies rather than use a loudhailer like the leader in Budapest.

It will take a week or two of horse trading before Kurz can put together a new coalition. Since the Freedom Party is almost certainly unwelcome, there is a strong possibility that his new government partner will be the Green party whose 14 percent of Sunday’s vote added to the People’s Party 37.1 percent would give Kurz a working majority. Since 2016 Austria’s president has been Alexander Van der Bellen who was backed by the Greens.

In return for their support, the Greens will probably insist Kurz eases his hard line on migrants. They will also demand more positive steps be taken on the environment, particularly in areas such as the replacement of single-use plastics. Kurz will probably be full of such assurances. But the Greens need to be aware that by joining in government with the People’s Party and its unpleasant racist undertones, they are giving it an undeserved degree of respectability.