AUSTRIA'S NEW ENFANT TERRIBLE

At 31, Sebastian Kurz is a dashing young man; handsome, chic, photogenic, full of gumption. He is also the huge winner of the recent parliamentary election in Austria and will add to his youthful charisma very soon when he will assume that country’s chancellorship and thus become the world’s youngest head of government.

The man’s political skills cannot be doubted. He seized power of Austria’s staid and venerable center-right party, the Austrian People’s Party (Oesterreichische Volkspartei – OeVP) and in a matter of months rendered it into a cutting-edge party of social-media savvy bourgeois hipsters who catapulted the party from its drab existence as a perennial but predictable, conventional and boring power broker of Austria’s postwar politics into the central player of this small but crucial country in the middle of Europe. In his overall re-branding, Kurz even changed the party’s historic colors from its traditional black to turquoise. His success boils down to his crafting a campaign centered on curtailing immigration while at the same time strengthening Austria’s already impressive social welfare regime. Brilliantly, Kurz succeeded in fashioning a political identity that was decidedly anti-Angela-Merkel and could well be called “FPOe light” in that it addressed all the issues raised by the OeVP’s far-right rival (as well as former and most likely future governing partner) the Freedom Party, Freiheitliche Partei Oesterreichs (FPOe) but in a more muted and socially acceptable tone. Indeed, sporting his unquestionable youthful charisma, Kurz undoubtedly replicated similar traits that made the late Joerg Haider, erstwhile leader of the FPOe and arguably the most important figure of the European far right in the 1990s and early 2000s, so attractive and popular. At the current unofficial 31.4 percent of the vote, Kurz’s OeVP can claim an impressive triumph that once again highlights how deeply the issues of resistance to immigration, fear of globalization and a preoccupation with identity politics preoccupy many voters in virtually all liberal democracies in advanced capitalist economies.

Kurz’s coalition partner will most likely be the aforementioned Freedom Party that – with 27 percent of the vote – coming in neck and neck with the Social Democrats has once again proven that it is a major force in Austrian politics. Long gone are the days when the party’s existence in the first decades of Austria’s postwar republic hovered between the 5 and 10 percent mark with a Nazi-era-based history that rendered the party toxic as a possible coalition partner to either of the two bigs, the Austrian People’s Party and the Austrian Socialist Party, later renamed to its original Social Democratic Party. Indeed, the FPOe’s political toxicity furnished one of the ostensible reasons for Austria’s being governed by a so-called Grand Coalition for most of its postwar history in which the two giants – SPOe and OeVP – ruled undisputed and divided the country’s political spoils between themselves. This arrangement weakened in essence the country’s oppositional voices for decades and furnished one of the reasons for Joerg Haider’s success in growing the FPOe from its former fringes to a major political power where it continues to stand. To be sure, the FPOe failed to attain the 35 percent that it had received barely one year ago when its candidate narrowly missed out on becoming the country’s president a position that in Austria, like in many parliamentary democracies, has much greater symbolic value than decision-making powers. But the eight-point drop masks the fact that Norbert Hofer, the FPOe’s presidential candidate, was the sole candidate of the country’s right and thus clearly received many votes that this past Sunday benefited Sebastian Kurz. It is nothing short of worrisome that a party with the FPOe’s past and its continuously unabated rightwing positions can garner more than one quarter of the Austrian electorate.

And then there remain the Social Democrats led by the incumbent chancellor Christian Kern. Like the FPOe, they, too, tallied about 27 percent of the vote but there can be no question that this represents a dark day in the country’s once proud social democratic labor movement. While the numbers are not as low as they have recently been for many of its European sister parties, most notably the SPD in neighboring Germany that attained a tad more than 20 percent, in Austria, too, social democracy has lost its gumption. Of course, this all commenced in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the new social movements – women’s, peace, environment, among others – deployed the ideas of the New Left of the 1960s in these countries’ electoral sphere mainly to the detriment of the old-Left social democrats. The “materialist” issues that so comprised the core of social democracy for well over one century had been superseded by the “post-materialism” of a new milieu that was to comprise the green parties. Though not in terms of actual size in legislatures where the social democrats maintained their edge over the greens, there is no question that in terms of the originality of topics and the salience of issues the greens had surpassed the social democrats in terms of being more cutting edge and exciting, even relevant. Alas, this did not help the Austrian Green Party any which probably failed to clear the country’s 4 percent threshold for any parliamentary representation and will not be in the Austrian parliament for the first time since 1986. The party can take small solace from the fact that the country’s current president Alexander Van Der Bellen, who defeated the aforementioned FPOe politician Norbert Hofer to become the country’s president, was one of its most prominent and eloquent leaders.

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