Austria’s far-right Freedom Party is on course to hold the balance of power in a coalition after Sunday’s election, with polls suggesting they are likely to be part of the next government no matter who wins.
Neither the frontrunner – 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz of the centre-right Austrian People’s party (OVP), currently polling second on 25% – nor incumbent chancellor Christian Kern of the centre-left SPO have ruled out a coalition with the Freedom Party.
That means party leader Heinz-Christian Strache could become the first European politician with a neo-Nazi background to sit in government since the Second World War. Last year’s defeated Freedom Party presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, who narrowly lost out to Green-backed Alexander van der Bellen, could become foreign minister.
The last time the Freedom Party formed a coalition with the OVP, in 2000, it provoked outrage and economic sanctions from Israel and several EU states. However, says The Independent, “these were quickly withdrawn after warnings that the measures might be counter-productive and actually stoke up nationalist sentiment in the central European state”. The party’s continued rise in popularity over the past decade-and-a-half seems to have borne this out.
Even before it enters government, the Freedom Party has prompted a dramatic swing to the right in Austrian politics. The party has managed “to dictate the agenda of a campaign centred largely around immigration and fears of radical Islam, and will receive a last-stretch boost from a ‘dirty campaigning row’ between the traditional centre parties”, says The Guardian.
If it asked to form a ruling coalition, the party will demand the right to deny migrants access to welfare payments, the introduction of Swiss-style referendums and a closer alignment with central European states whose borders overlap with the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.
However, says Reuters, Kurz’s own shift to the right appears to have dented the Freedom Party’s prospects. Driven by a backlash after Austria took in more than 1% of its population in asylum seekers during the height of the refugee crisis, the FPO had been polling in first place until May, when Kurz was elected to lead the OVP.
By aping the rhetoric of the far-right, Kurz, who would be one of the world’s youngest leaders were he to become chancellor, “seems to have orchestrated a breathtaking takeover of the party, rebranding it to reflect youth and change whilst also garnering voters from those who might have leaned more centrist all along”, says Prospect Magazine.
He has done this by frequently reminding voters that he opposed opening the borders in 2015 during Europe’s migration crisis and saying he wants to restrict benefits for refugees and other new arrivals.
As the minister in charge of integration in a coalition government with the Social Democrats, “he has a wide mandate, but taking a hard line on immigration and avoiding another influx like 2015’s has dominated his discourse”, says Reuters.