Rising nationalist tide in Austria

The flood of refugees that rolled over Europe in 2015 affected Austria more than any other country except its neighbor Germany. Today, Austrians go to the polls in parliamentary elections that could elevate a 31 year old nationalist to the chancellorship.

Sebastian Kurz, the charismatic leader of the Austrian People's Party (OVP) left the coalition government with the Social Democrats when he was elevated to the party's top spot last May. The cause of the split was the ongoing debate over refugees in Austria, who have put a huge drain on government resources.

Austria is a conservative Cathloic country and it's politics has been dominated by right of center parties since the end of World War II. But the tide of nationalism that has swept Europe has brought to the fore not only the OVP, but also the far right Freedom Party (FPO), which is also set to make large gains in the election.


Kurz says he will shut the main migrant routes into Europe, via the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Many voters say Austria was overrun when it opened its borders in 2015 to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“We must stop illegal immigration to Austria because otherwise there will be no more order and security,” Kurz told tabloid daily Oesterreich on Friday.

Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats (SPO) are in coalition with Kurz’s OVP but Kurz ended the alliance when he took over his party in May, forcing Sunday’s snap election. 

Opinion polls show the conservatives ahead with around a third of the vote and a tight race for second between the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party (FPO), whose candidate nearly won last year’s presidential election.

Immigration has dominated the campaign. Kurz plans to cap benefits for refugees at well below the general level and bar other foreigners from receiving such payments until they have lived in the country for five years.

He also says he wants to shake up Austrian politics, which for decades has been dominated by a coalition between his party and the Social Democrats. His opponents say he is merely a new face on a party in power in various coalitions for 30 years.

Leaders of all three top parties warned voters to be skeptical about polling in a bid to improve turnout.

“You should not pay attention to opinion polls. You should instead go by the atmosphere here,” FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache told cheering supporters at a shopping mall in Vienna on Saturday.

The FPO has accused Kurz of copying its ideas and Strache called him an “impersonator.”

A coailition between the FPO and OVP is a distinct possibility, although it is likely that Kurz will need the help of one or two of the smaller parties as well. But there's no doubt that Kurz has struck a chord with Austrian voters that Chancellor Kern and the Social Democrats cannot match. Pulling the OVP out of the coalition was a masterstroke since now, the onus for the refugee problem falls squarely on the Social Democrats. 

Unlike in Germany and France where nationalist parties are demonized as the second coming of Hitler, conservative parties in Austria are considered mainstream largely because they offer little contrast to the Social Democrats when it comes to the welfare state. But in proposing to deny government benefits to refugees, Kurz will probably ride that issue to the chancellorship.

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