Some analysts wrongfully depict the Austrian electoral experience from October 2017 as a drift to the (far-)right, fearing that a populist, anti-immigrant anxiety may become embedded into the Austrian government. But the fact that the would-be-chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s stances have at times aligned with the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) does not mean that his success is based on substantial ‘far-right’ politics. It is rather a new political style, not its content, which led him to victory.
How widespread analyses depict Sebastian Kurz – misguidedly
The 31-year-old electoral winner does not lack followers who adore and venerate him. They have labelled him a Wunderkind and Jahrhundertgenie, a political genius with rare qualities who only surfaces once in a century. He is the youngest among a new, global generation of leaders who have vowed to transform political culture all over the world – Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau are even roughly one decade older than him.
Sebastian Kurz’s electoral success propelled the once-so-old-fashioned conservative party, the ÖVP, into the centre stage of Austrian politics. It is now leading coalition talks with the populist far-right FPÖ, a party often described to comprise elements close to neo-Nazis.
Domestic and international analysts simplistically assert from this that Austria is “poised to shift sharply right”. To add evidence, they point out that the would-be-chancellor Sebastian Kurz “rode a wave of anti-immigrant anxiety” by decrying social benefits for immigrants; that he had initiated the seal of the ‘Balkan route’ through which refugees fluxed into Europe until March 2016; and that he had called for a Europe-wide halt of Turkey’s accession talks to the EU.
Bleak scenarios of a far-right Europe, swamped by nationalist identity politics, often evoking the darkest periods of Austrian history, re-emerge in such assertions. As the “Alpine nation has historically foreshadowed political trends across the continent – including the rise of the populist right two decades ago” (Financial Times), the ‘far-right’ government which is in the midst of being negotiated may well apprehend gloomy Europe-wide trends brimming with Islamophobia and complacency.
Such analyses certainly merit applause for two reasons: First, because it is rare enough that international media pay attention to Austrian politics in the first place; and second, for contextualizing Sebastian Kurz into Austrian history from which he certainly cannot be de-coupled.
However, such analyses are misguided. They over-emphasize an alleged ‘rightist’ aspect of Sebastian Kurz, which is depicted as the source of his victory. By doing so, they overlook that it is not primarily the politically ‘right’ aspect, if that is the correct label at all, what made him successful.
Yes, he did seize the currents emerging out of Austrian political history, but what he seized was not the currents of nationalism. It was rather a current of accumulating frustration over the lack of any meaningful political culture.
The pre-Kurz era in Austria
Jürgen Habermas famously argued that political speech be honest, open, rational, and reasonable. The pre-Kurz era of Austrian politics had none of it.
The post-World War II institutions that were set up in the Austrian 1950s proved enduringly successful. The Republic was mainly governed by a Grand Coalition comprising of the Left (SPÖ) and the Conservatives (ÖVP) who came to evenly share political power ever since then. This cooperative model permeated the whole society – not only ministers and members of parliament, but also each representative chamber, media institutions, museums, and other seemingly apolitical places depended on membership in either of the ruling parties. Societal leadership-assignments were always, at least informally, taken in behalf of one of the two parties. This Austrian model, which was particularly mirrored in the ‘Sozialpartnerschaft’ (the political strive to reach a consensus among the conflicting interests of employers and employees), was a great post-War success that ensured harmony and prosperity. Conflicts between the two parties certainly arose; recently, this usually just led to snap elections, only to have them install the same Grand Coalition again.
The only serious challenger was the rise of the far-right FPÖ; but this challenge was traditionally dealt with by the refusal to enter into any dialogues with them. The ruling parties were used to ‘co-habitate’ with each other, but not with any outsider. They thus did everything to delegitimize any of the FPÖ’s claim, not recognizing that the FPÖ’s success may have partly reflected aggregated societal needs.
Political debates then gradually followed a pattern of denial and refusal, leading to a proliferation of ad hominem arguments, most recently manifested during the electoral campaign in summer 2017 when the then-chancellor Christian Kern (SPÖ) called Kurz a “Vollholler” (similar to idiot). Passionate antagonisms accrued to animate almost any discussion, and the emotionalization of issues became a routine constantly re-produced and deliberately sustained by all the party-controlled institutions that filled the Austrian society.
In addition, the political life became highly resilient to any changes. It consisted of the ‘same old men’ for many decades. Dominant figures have been remarkably persistent in their offices – take, for instance, the mayor of Vienna, Michael Häupl (SPÖ), who assumed office in 1994 and who still leads the capital; or Erwin Pröll (ÖVP), who governed the largest state of Austria from 1992 to 2017. These and others ensured that nothing would change in Austria, mostly by refusing to enter into any serious conversations with those segments of the population who did not feel represented by the SPÖ or the ÖVP.
A ‘New Style’ leading to electoral success
All this changed in the past few years. In a highly courageous political experiment, the Conservative party’s older generation handpicked the then 24-year old Sebastian Kurz to occupy the quasi-ministerial post of a federal State Secretary for Integration in 2011. With his ascension – he became Foreign Minister in 2013 – his followers from the conservative Youth branch followed into higher political ranks, a rejuvenation which was soon imitated by almost all other parties. One may now reasonably claim that Sebastian Kurz is merely one of many in Austria who, across all segments, embody a young and optimistic political generation, full of refreshing ideas and modern communication skills.
And this is what Kurz’s team labelled, succinctly, the ‘New Style’ of politics: A respectful attitude always ready to talk with dissenters and the stigmatized, in order to create a joint basis for discussion. Not to pre-condemn those who seem to drift to the extreme, but to hold them back to speak openly about the issues which all are concerned about, and to have the results communicated transparently to the population.
This is what Kurz has repeatedly accentuated throughout his political career. In a German TV discussion in October 2016, he tried to soberly understand Hungary’s harsh response with regards to EU-wide refugee quotas, which others waved off as ‘far right’ and ‘anti-EU’, thus not meriting any serious attention. During the electoral campaign in the months prior to October 2017, he never excluded the FPÖ, which was almost a novum to the Austrian audience. And he acted upon the promise of openness and rejuvenation when his list of candidates welcomed anyone willing to participate, regardless of fractional backgrounds, and when dozens of new members were channelled into the Austrian parliament, evenly based on gender equality.
The accusation that the Austrian people elected a ‘right’ or even ‘far-right’ politics is simply wrong. As Kurz himself said in a post-electoral interview, “the voters who chose us primarily supported a ‘New Style’ – which is about not denigrating others, not bashing others, but rather about finding a basis for discussions with everyone in order to jointly make Austria better.” It is thus the style, not the substance of his politics, which mattered most in shaping his success.
Conclusion: What led Sebastian Kurz to victory?
In pre-Kurz Austria, what the domestic constituencies got to know about political negotiations was usually confined to the fact that there were disagreements and fights. Huge tax reform ideas were then, after weeks or months, suddenly presented all at once with hundreds or thousands of pages, overwhelming journalists, analysts and the people alike.
This has changed. Modern information and communication technologies do not only enable people to stay connected to the political happenings more closely, but they also lead to a demand for a better, respectful, and transparent communication. This places an unusual demand to the old generation, but the younger ones – Sebastian Kurz being one of them – have proved capable of delivering.
And this is what Sebastian Kurz calls the ‘New Style’; and this is what made him so popular: Not the fact that salient aspects of his politics align towards the right, but the ‘New Style’ of political culture based on openness and sober, matter-of-fact communication without resorting to ugly infightings.
Popular analyses in international media have not yet made this distinction very clearly. But carefully weighing whether the primary reason of Sebastian Kurz’s success was the ‘rightist’ component or the ‘new style’ is important if one wants to grasp the future of Austria – and therefore the future of the European Union.
Picture: The ‘Sisi-Room’ within the Federal Chancellery in Vienna, Austria ( © Stock Images of the Bundeskanzleramt of the Republic of Austria).