With more than 50% of Austria’s electorate voting for a right-wing, anti-immigration party, the tide of nativist politics appears to be rising in Europe.
“This is our time for real change,” Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old head of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) said following the party’s electoral victory October 15. “There is much to do. It’s time for a new political style, time to create a new political culture.”
For the European Union, Kurz’s “new” political style and culture are nothing new. “[This] is the latest manifestation of the right-ward shift in European politics and the consequence of adjustments conservative politicians are making to attract a wider base,” Adham Sahloul, a programme assistant with the Religion, Identity and Human Rights Project at the Atlantic Council, said in an article for the think-tank’s website.
Preliminary results indicate Kurz’s right-wing OVP finishing with 31.5% of the vote, ahead of the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPO), which came second with 26.9%, and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) third with 26%. Kurz is expected to become chancellor as head of a right-wing coalition government.
Kurz, who was Europe’s youngest foreign minister when he was appointed in 2013, took over the centrist OVP in May 2017, leading a rebrand that saw the party move to the right on several issues, notably immigration. The election slogan “Austrians First” won popular support at home and capitalised on Kurz’s image as a strong proponent of law and order.
During the campaign, Kurz appealed to right-wing voters with pledges to shut down migrant routes to Europe, cap benefit payments to refugees and bar immigrants from receiving benefits until they have lived in Austria for five years.
“Kurz appealed to far-right voters by co-opting core issues that were part of the FPO’s platform — migration and security. He relied on talking points traditionally used by opponents of the EU’s refugee policy on minimum quotas and called for closed borders and deterring refugees from coming to Europe,” Sahloul said.
While the FPO — founded by former Nazis in the 1950s — complained about Kurz’s OVP co-opting their issues during the election campaign, both parties increased their share of the vote.
This rise of right-wing voices is a response to the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees, mostly from the Middle East, in recent years. The FPO, in particular, has stoked fears about Muslims in Austria. “Islamisation must be stopped” was one of its slogans.
Kurz also sought to exploit such fears, pledging a ban on “Muslim kindergartens” and to combat what he described as a “parallel community” of Muslims in Austria — a term he used frequently during the campaign.
A right-wing OVP-FPO coalition government in Austria would likely seek to further clamp down on immigration and promote nativist policies.
“The difference between it [FPO] and the OVP is one of degrees: While Kurz’s OVP wants to fine migrants who refuse to attend integration and language classes, the FPO calls for dropping such classes completely. The FPO pledged to deny migrants access to welfare payments altogether,” said Berlin-based political analyst Paul Hockenos on CNN.
Austrian Muslims expressed concern about the vote result but called for patience. “I’m concerned but not afraid,” Omar al-Rawi, a Baghdad-born member of the Vienna City Council, told Euronews.
“To see that Austria has a majority of nearly 60% of right-wing voters is not something that would make me happy. I think anti-Muslim rhetoric will continue but I know Austria is strong enough to manage it.”
Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.
This article as originally published in The Arab Weekly.