The Political Center and the Populists in Austria

Political policies, like fairy tales, can come true even if they go to extremes with impossible schemes if the leaders are young at heart and in age. Public opinion surveys suggest a decline in the participation of young citizens in democratic countries, and the young are generally less active in politics. Nevertheless, the young at heart, overlooking North Korea's 34-year-old Kim Jong-un, have emerged in a number of countries: Emmanuel Macron is President of France at 39, and Justine Trudeau is prime minister of Canada at 45.

Similarly, in Europe Matteo Renzi ("the scrapper") became prime minister of Italy in 2014 at age 39, Taavi Roivas prime minister of Estonia in 2014 at age 35, and now Sebastian Kurz is likely to become chancellor -- prime minister -- of Austria at 31.

They are not shy of exhibiting their physical prowess, but they are symbolic figures in two ways: one is that they exemplify dissatisfaction with the older political status quo; secondly, they also probably are more familiar than are older generations in their grasp of modern instrumentalities, digital and social media and ability to connect these abilities with voters.

The rapid rise of Sebastian Kurz is surprising. That rise has led him to be nicknamed wunderwuzzi (whizkid), and his star rose partly because of his telegenic appearance with open collar and swept back mane of brown hair.

He began in politics as a youngster aged 10, joined his political party in 2009, became member of parliament and immigration minister in 2013, and foreign minister in 2014 at age 27. He had surpassed the record of the renowned Klemens von Metternich who became foreign minister of the Austrian empire in 1809 at age 36, and was Europe's youngest foreign minister. Now, Kurz is likely to be the youngest head of government in the world.

Kurz became leader of his political party, the Austrian People's Party (OVP), in May 2017, and vowed to transform it into a broad movement, a big tent mainstream party that has attracted 200,000 new supporters. At the parliamentary election on October 15, 2017 the OVP, a conservative right of center party, came first with 31.4% of the vote while the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) got 26%, and the Social Democrats (SPO) got 26.9%. The center and right wing had gotten 58% of the vote. This was a striking change from the last election in 2013 when the Social Democrat party led with 26.8%, and headed a coalition government, while the OVP got 24% and the FDP got 20.5%. Also, in the 2016 presidential election the FPO candidate, Norbert Hofer, had received 46.2 % of the vote.

The decisive issue in the election was anti-immigration and anti-Islamization.

Austria, with a population of under 9 million, took in 100,000 Middle East asylum seekers, and has taken 17,000 in six months of 2017. The argument is probably true that Kurz's party did well because he stole the program of the Freedom Party: anti-immigrant; tough on crime, border security, ban on Muslims.

Yet Kurz has long been aware of the immigration problem, and proposed various forms of action. He held an open borders policy is wrong. Anyone who attempts to enter Europe illegally will not be granted asylum in Austria. Europe should only be taking people in through resettlement programs, and should boost assistance in the countries of origin of the migrants. Boats should be prevented from leaving Libya to enter Europe through Italy. Kurz explained many people had lost their lives in the Mediterranean when attempting to reach Europe.

Kurz is equally critical of Islamic behavior. He has called for a ban on the full face veil, proposed paying salaries of imams, and regulating the version of the Koran that may be used in Austria.

Kurz cannot be put in a pigeon hole, unlike the former leader of his party, Jorg Haider, who was killed in a car crash in 2008, or like Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, the right-wing populist and nationalist who has dismantled democratic institutions in his country, opposed EU quota proposals on migrants, and held that Islam is the rulebook of another world and has never spiritually been part of Europe. Interestingly, unlike Orban, who has been accused of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism and has often spoken of "foreign cosmopolitans," Kurz has expressed zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.

Similarly, Kurz is not Angela Merkel's lapdog. He claims he wants to be a bridge between east and west, to be pro-European, agreeing with some of EU policies, but not on a close social union. or immigration. On the contrary, he believes that on some issues nation states can make better decisions than can the EU. Nevertheless, he was happy that Merkel was the first to call and congratulate him on election night.

The Austrian election is interesting in two ways: it indicates the country has moved, if not overwhelmingly, to the right; and it will be a test of whether European center moderates can deal with right-wing populists. Kurz, who does not have an overall majority, has three alternatives in forming a government. One, following the example of Sweden, is to enter into a coalition with the center left SPO and thus isolate the populist element. A second, following the example of Norway, is to ally with the FPO led by Heinz-Christian Strache. A third, following occasional strategy in the UK, is to form a minority government.

Kurz appears to have made his choice, to engage in coalition talks with the Freedom party. The two parties may differ over some political issues, such as ministerial appointments, but they agree on the fundamental issues, minimizing or ending migration, deportation of asylum seekers whose request is denied, and opposition to radical Islam. The two parties recognize that in 2016 the refugee crisis was ended, mainly for two reasons. The West Balkan route was closed to migrants, and Turkey had agreed to help. However, the problem has not been solved. There is a need for a common EU policy so Italy and Greece don't have to deal with the problem alone.

Austria, which has the fourth highest GDP per capita in the EU, is a relatively rich country that has surged to the political right. It is also a country that is likely to have as part of its government a party, the FPO, that is not only anti-establishment, anti-immigration, and essentially anti-Muslim position but also a reminder of an ominous past. The Freedom party was founded by ex-Nazis in 1956, and its first leader was a former Nazi SS officer. Its members wear cornflower in their buttonholes, the symbol of Nazi supporters in Austria when the party was banned there between 1934 and 1938. Despite this, it is the first far right-wing party to be part of a government in postwar Europe in 2000.

Austria may now join the Visegrad group of four countries -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia -- founded in Hungary in February 1991 to advance cooperation in various fields -- economic, military, and energy -- but all opposed to the refugee quotas that Brussels wants to introduce. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, has asserted that quotas not only pose a moral problem, but will also cause more deaths if they encourage people to try to reach Europe by sea. Austria, together with the four countries, rejects the idea of more Arab immigrants.

The crucial question is whether, if the center and right join hands in government of Austria, the relatively moderate OVP will be able to control the far-right FPO. In recent years, both moderates and extremists, whether in the Netherlands, France, or Germany, have had successes and failures. But all are aware of the problem of immigration whether it is a call for a ban on foreign funding of mosques, a ban on burkas and on the Muslim call to prayer, or preventing the entrance of Middle East Muslims. President Donald Trump will be interested in how the Austrian center right deals with the issue.