Austria Election: Sebastian Kurz Poised To Regain Power
Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET
Austria's youngest-ever chancellor, 33-year-old Sebastian Kurz, is poised to reclaim his job after his party received its biggest victory in years, according to partial results of parliamentary elections.
His conservative Austrian People's Party received more than 37% of the vote, 5 percentage points higher than its showing in 2017, when it teamed up with the far-right Freedom Party to form a government.
"It's been a difficult four months but today the people have chosen us again," Kurz told a crowd of cheering supporters. "I'm rarely at a loss for words, but I'm practically speechless. We didn't expect such a result."
Kurz's first government came crashing down in May after his coalition partner, the Freedom Party, became embroiled in a cash-for-contracts scandal.
The conservatives do not have enough seats to govern alone so they will need a coalition partner. Kurz could team up with the Green Party, which won 14% of the vote, a significant improvement from 2017, when it failed to get enough votes to enter parliament. He could also team up again with the Freedom Party, which saw its support drop t0 16% — 10% lower than 2017.
Kurz might consider reuniting with the far-right party because it's "very good at being in opposition, which creates headaches for Mr. Kurz," says Reinhard Heinisch, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Salzburg. "But the Freedom Party is also very problematic."
Kurz invited the Freedom Party into his government in 2017 with the intention of taming its worst tendencies. The party is known in Austria for populist rhetoric that vilifies migrants and Muslims. It has ties to radical right extremist groups like Generation Identity, which has links with the Christchurch terrorist who murdered 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in March.
Instead, the partnership was an 18-month roller-coaster of disturbing headlines about the far-right party's links to the Kremlin, a deeply anti-Semitic songbook and a poem likening migrants to rats.
The final straw for Kurz came in May. His vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, then Freedom Party leader, was forced to resign after the German magazine Der Spiegel obtained and published a video from 2017, which was filmed secretly as part of a sting, showing him spending a boozy evening on the Spanish island of Ibiza with a woman posing as the niece of a rich Russian close to the Kremlin. In the video, Strache offers the woman government contracts if she supports the Freedom Party.
"Enough is enough," Kurz said then.
Strache resigned, the Freedom Party left the government, and Kurz lost a no-confidence vote in parliament. A caretaker government led by former supreme court judge Brigitte Bierlein, the first female chancellor in history, has run the country all summer with a quiet competence that's won her admiration.
"People like having a government that's not always in the media," Heinisch says.
Scrutiny of an "unabashedly nationalist party"
The Freedom Party has made headlines for years.
Most recently, partly because of the Ibiza video, its ties to Russia have come under scrutiny.
While Austria has warm ties with Russia, the Freedom Party openly admires the Kremlin, raising eyebrows in the NATO-supporting West.
"It's in our interests to have a balanced worldwide network of allies and not to be a U.S. colony," says Johannes Huebner, a longtime Freedom Party member, during an interview in June. "The thing is, in Europe, there is overwhelming U.S. influence through NATO through the control of the financial system, through the media, through the entertainment industry."
Like other radical right parties, they also oppose immigration and are unabashedly nationalist — which means something in Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. Many in the Freedom Party see the defeat of Nazi Germany "not as a victory for democracy but as a defeat for their cause," Heinisch says.
Hitler annexed the country in 1938 but Austria did not go through the same process of post-war re-education as Germany.
"There was an anti-Nazi political consensus in the years after 1945 but there was never a consensus that you cannot cooperate politically with the far right," says Bernhard Weidinger at the Documentation Center for the Austrian Resistance in Vienna.
"So the two big parties" — the center-right People's Party and the Social Democrats — "they've always been flirting with the far right. And that of course, contributed massively to normalize policies of this party."
Co-opting an anti-migrant message
Sunday's election results show that the Ibiza scandal hurt the party more than expected.
Public opinion polls had showed about one in five Austrians supporting the party.
One is retired IT administrator Kurt Blind, who runs a monthly meeting of party faithful at a beer-and-schnitzel restaurant in Vienna.
"We may not have as many members as the other parties yet," he said in an interview in June. "But each month we grow."
The party had won support with its anti-migrant rhetoric, polished in 2015, when a million asylum-seekers and migrants arrived in Europe.
Kurz rose to prominence in Austrian politics by trying co-opt that hard-line rhetoric and serve it up through "his clean-cut, millennial blandness" as a way to make it more palatable, says Nina Horaczek, an investigative reporter at the Austrian weekly Falter, who co-wrote a biography of Kurz.
"He did not understand that repeating hard-line anti-immigrant rhetoric in a nicer tone does not defeat far-right populists," she says. "It makes them stronger."
The Freedom Party's influence was most obvious in migration policy. The government cut benefits for migrant families, banned headscarves in elementary schools and threatened to force new asylum-seekers to work for less than $2 an hour. Dormitories housing asylum-seekers were renamed "departure centers."
In the town of Traiskirchen, just outside Vienna, Afghan asylum-seeker Daoud Saidi got the message.
"I'm not wanted here," he says. "I told the Austrian authorities that the Taliban took over my village and that it's not safe. They told me I had to leave Austria."
Can the Freedom Party reconcile with Kurz?
The caretaker government axed the departure center signs and cancelled plans to pay new asylum-seekers sweatshop wages.
Migration is not the top issue in this election. Austrians are nowadays more interested in issues such as climate change.
But the Freedom Party still brings it up.
"On the issue of immigration, the Freedom Party has posters saying Mr. Kurz is learning from us," says Heinisch, the politics professor in Salzburg.
As media have speculated that Kurz might team up with the Greens, which is pro-migration, in a new coalition government, the Freedom Party has told voters that if they stay home "that means the conservatives are going to do a deal with the Greens and then they'll throw the borders open the immigrants will pour in," Heinisch says.
"The slogan that the Freedom Party is posting is, 'we need to be strong so we can keep the conservatives on the right path.' "
For the Freedom Party, that means reconciling with Kurz, who remains popular.
"He's no longer the messianic figure of Austrian politics he was a couple of years ago," Heinisch says. "But he's handsome, he's rhetorically gifted, he's young and, to a lot of conservatives, represents the future."
There's even a campaign commercial showing the new Freedom Party leader, Norbert Hofer, in couples therapy with an actor portraying Kurz.
The men tell a therapist how much they like and respect each other and how they share ideas. They sometimes answer questions in unison.
"We have so much in common," Hofer says in the video. "We just need a little push to get back together."
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