Austrian election proves right-wing populism is new normal in Europe

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The far-right populist Freedom Party recently won 26 percent of the vote in the Austrian elections, and it is likely to join the government with the center-right People’s Party. Coming on the heels of a high showing for the Alternative for Germany last month, along with the erosion of democracy in Poland and in Hungary under populist governments, observers have rung alarms that this is an election which should “terrify Europeans” as it recalls “Austria’s Nazi past.”
Yet, for all the consternation that the election has produced, the Freedom Party and its anti-immigrant and anti-establishment rhetoric are nothing new. The Freedom Party is an established and familiar party in Austrian politics, initially critical of its grand coalition of the People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party, and then of the country’s acceptance of immigrants.

Founded in the 1950s by former Nazis, the Freedom Party has been a steady presence in Austrian politics. It usually polled below 10 percent until the 1990s, when it soared in popularity, largely on the strength of its anti-immigration rhetoric as 95,000 Bosnian refugees entered Austria. It came in second in the 1999 elections and was part of the 2000 to 2005 government, spurring a vehement but short lived response from the European Union, including bilateral sanctions. Its current surge in popularity is familiar, catalyzed by the refugee crisis of 2015 and the entry of 90,000 Syrian refugees.So what is different this time around? First, the Freedom Party’s showing comes at a time when Europe is experiencing a wave of populist discontent. By 2015, these parties have more than doubled their support since the 1990s, winning more than 20 percent of the vote on average. After the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, a brief anti-populist backlash led these parties to do less well as expected in the Netherlands in March and in France in May. In Austria, the Freedom Party candidate for president, Norbert Hofer, was defeated by his Green Party competitor last December.
Yet, after this brief dip the Alternative for Germany won an unprecedented 13 percent of the vote, with the left-wing populist Die Linke taking another 9 percent, in the September elections in Germany. Populist governments continue to erode democracy in Poland and in Hungary. The upcoming Czech elections are also likely to produce a populist party led by an oligarch as the senior government party. Much of this discontent centers around welfare chauvinism and a resentment against the perceptions of an economic and cultural threat posed by immigration from outside the European Union.
What is both new and worrying is the shift to the right of the mainstream People’s Party. The Freedom Party has already changed the policy landscape in Austria. Sebastian Kurz, the 31 year old wunderkind leader of the victorious People’s Party, responded to the soaring popularity of the Freedom Party by announcing new restrictions on immigration, a stricter stance on crime and terrorism, and limits on social benefits to immigrants. As foreign minister, Kurz closed off the Austrian border to refugees in 2016 and passed the Integration Act of 2017 that banned the full face veil.
This will be a coalition far more likely to engage in welfare chauvinism and “strict on crime” policies, one that will continue to resist further immigration, and one that will be less compliant to European Union demands or quotas. While Angela Merkel in Germany has not co-opted the rhetoric and policies of the Alternative for Germany, the rise of the Freedom Party led the mainstream People’s Party to adopt and adapt, to the point that the Freedom Party itself grew uneasy with the co-optation.
That said, this will not be an easy alliance. Not only has the Freedom Party criticized the People’s Party as part of a corrupt and staid establishment, but the two parties hold some distinct views. Kurz and the People’s Party are pro-Europe, while the Freedom Party is not. They diverge on relations with Russia, as the Freedom Party’s leadership supports and has close ties to Vladimir Putin, while the People’s Party is far more skeptical of the Russian authoritarian and his support of populists worldwide.
What are the ramifications for European relations? In contrast to 2000, the European Union has not condemned the proposed coalition, either in words or actions. The European Union has its hands full with the continued failure of most of its members to accept their quota of refugees, with the disastrous negotiations over Brexit, and the continued intransigence of the illiberal governments in Poland and in Hungary, all of which are closely tied to the populist wave in Europe.
Anti-immigration sentiments, an anti-cosmopolitan isolationism in the name of defending traditional values and identities, and a welfare chauvinism that seeks to limit redistribution to the native-born are the new order of the day. Right-wing populism, whether in power or not, is the new normal in Europe.
Anna Grzymala Busse is a professor and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.