Making Austria Great Again

“We want to reduce the burden on taxpayers – and above all we want to ensure greater security in our country, including the fight against illegal immigration…”

Conservative politician Sebastian Kurz, the new chancellor of Austria, is Europe’s youngest leader. He is 31 years old. Kurz led a revamped Austrian’s People’s Party (ÖVP – Österreichische Volkspartei) to first place in the October 15 parliamentary election by espousing conservative positions. What consequences will this have for Europe?

The conservatives and right-wing populists agreed to form a coalition government with the nationalist Freedom Party (FPÖ) that is expected to move the country’s politics several steps to the right.

The two parties have pledged to tighten the country’s asylum and immigration regulations, while maintaining a firm commitment to the European Union. It would mark the first time a far-right party enters government since 2000.

The Right Coalition

Austria’s right-leaning parties won big in the country’s legislative elections. The shift in Austrian politics to the right has raised concerns about the FPÖ’s opposition to the increasing powers of the EU and its anti-Islam positions. Kurz, who was foreign minister in the outgoing government, said that he had secured the FPÖ’s commitment to a pro-European stance.

However, both parties oppose deeper political integration among EU states and want Austria’s borders secured against immigration until the EU secures its external borders.

The far-right, anti-immigration Austrian Freedom Party came in third place with 26 percent, amounting to 51 seats, while the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) managed to garner 26.9 percent, placing them in second with 53 seats. “It shows that we have arrived at the center of society. We are the ones that dominate the political debate,” said FPÖ chief Heinz-Christian Strache.

The anti-immigration Austrian People’s Party and the anti-establishment Austrian Freedom Party have reached a deal, creating a new coalition to govern Austria for the next five years. The ground-breaking political alliance, which was sworn into office on December 18, is poised to catapult Austria to the vanguard of Western Europe’s resistance to mass migration from the Muslim world.

The coalition deal brings the Freedom Party into government for the first time in twelve years after it secured third place in the election on a hardline immigration stance. It was the junior coalition partner in 1986-87 and 2000-05. Previous coalition governments with the FPÖ have all collapsed before the five year period of governance, with the longest lasting less than three years.

Chancellor Kurz, who won after campaigning, much like President Trump, on a promise to halt illegal immigration, will govern with Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, the Freedom Party leader, who has warned that mass migration is “Islamizing” Austria. Under the agreement, Strache will become the vice-chancellor; the Freedom Party will also take control of the ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs.

Migration: Austria’s Main Concern

Before the elections, campaigning focused on migration, notably the 2015 migration crisis that polarized European politics. That year, Austria was used as a gateway for nearly 900,000 migrants making their way to Germany. Austria also received more than 68,000 applications for asylum in 2015, one of the highest proportions on the continent per capita.

While the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) campaigned on a track record of lowering unemployment and increasing economic growth, Kurz’s ÖVP promised to prevent a repeat of 2015’s wave of migration and cut access to social welfare benefits for newcomers for at least five years. In a poll by Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF) the Austrian national public service broadcaster, 55 percent of respondents that voted for the ÖVP said they did so because of their stance on asylum and integration.

When the wave of refugees seeking to relocate to Europe became a continent-wide concern, Kurz recognized Austrian voters’ anxiety over unchecked immigration. A trip to Macedonia in February only strengthened Kurz’s desire for increased EU border security to stem the tide of refugees.

Kurz’s Meteoric Rise

Sebastian Kurz was an eager member of the ÖVP’s youth wing. Having helped the party grow, he rose through the ranks all the way to foreign minister.

Despite his young age, the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) leader already has significant political experience. He has also cultivated an image as a political outsider, despite having been foreign minister for four years.

In 2013, he was appointed Europe’s youngest-ever foreign minister. At 27 years old, he hosted talks between Iran, the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France and the UK on the nuclear deal. In 2015, the landmark agreement was signed in Vienna.

At his own request, his portfolio would include managing integration. This led to him introduce the so-called “Islam Act” in 2015, which put restrictions on foreign money supporting Austrian mosques in an attempt to curb a rise in so-called “political Islam.” And he backed the “burka ban” which prevents wearing a veil that covers the face in public.

He called for stricter external border controls in Europe to discourage refugees from fleeing to Europe. He also organized the shutdown of the popular overland refugee route through the West Balkans.

Kurz has been likened to other young, charismatic leaders such as Emmanuel Macron of France and Justin Trudeau of Canada. However, Kurz’s politics overall are far more right-leaning than the mostly liberal agendas of his French and Canadian counterparts.

In May 2017, Kurz was appointed as acting party leader of the ÖVP after the unexpected resignation of Reinhold Mitterlehner. Two months later, Kurz was officially elected as party leader, and the party quickly rose from third spot in the polls to winning elections.

Why did Kurz Win?

Kurz has worked towards creating a new, right-wing image that uses moderate language in an attempt to appeal to both left and far-right voters.

He rebranded the party; renaming it “The New People’s Party”, while campaigning that it was “time for something new.” His central campaign message was to stop illegal immigration into Austria. During a campaign rally, Kurz said: “I can also promise today that we will end illegal migration to ensure more order and security in Austria.”

He wants to slash unemployment benefits for asylum seekers and workers from the EU and reduce the government’s aid to refugees. He also promised to stop tax increases. “We want to reduce the burden on taxpayers – and above all we want to ensure greater security in our country, including the fight against illegal immigration,” Kurz said.

This tone is very similar to the campaign speeches in the US by then candidate Trump. Many of the statements by Kurz mirror Mr. Trump. It has even gone as far as some Austrians using the phrase “Make Austria Great Again.”

“The ÖVP is usually seen as a center-right party, but it has taken over some of the arguments and issues from the FPÖ and presented them more moderately,” according to Anton Pelinka, a professor of nationalism studies at the Central European University. “The style is different, but the substance is not.”

What will Austria’s Government look like?

As a member of the EU, Austria could now go on to resist efforts by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to reform the bloc and expand cooperation on issues such as immigration.

Kurz has been a sharp critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door migration policy, which has allowed more than a million mostly male migrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to enter the region during the past two years.

Austria’s Muslim population now exceeds 700,000 (or roughly 8% of the total population), up from an estimated 340,000 (or 4.25%) in 2001, and 150,000 (or 2%) in 1990, according to data compiled by the University of Vienna.

The massive demographic and religious shift underway in Austria, traditionally a Roman Catholic country, appears irreversible. Austria has also emerged as a significant base for radical Islam. “We have a lot in common [with Israel]. I always say, if one defines the Judeo-Christian West, then Israel represents a kind of border. If Israel fails, Europe fails. And if Europe fails, Israel fails.” — Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Austrian Freedom Party.

A 180-page document explains the new government’s agenda between now and 2022. It promises to crack down on political Islam; to crack down on illegal immigration; to speed up asylum decisions and to sponsor an EU summit on immigration when Austria holds the EU presidency in the second half of 2018.

The document also pledges to give Austrians more opportunities to vote in referendums — although it explicitly refuses to allow a referendum on the country’s continued membership in the European Union.

Additionally, the document promises to: require migrants to learn German; require migrant kindergartners who have insufficient German language skills to repeat kindergarten before progressing to the first grade; increase the legal penalties for sexual crimes; strengthen Austrian defense; hire more police officers; reduce bureaucracy and not raise taxes.

At the same time, however, the document pledges a strong commitment to the European Union: “Only in a strong Europe can there be a strong Austria in which we are able to take advantage of the opportunities of the 21st century.” It should be noted the quote did not say a strong EU, but a strong Europe.

Some observers have said that Kurz’s professed commitment to the European Union was aimed at calming worries in Europe about the Freedom Party’s Euroskepticism and anti-Islamization policy objectives. Others have described Kurz as a pragmatist “who is anti-establishment and establishment at the same time.”

Kurz has nevertheless pledged to reject the European Union’s mandatory migrant quota. “I will work towards changing this erroneous refugee policy,” he said. “Without the proper protection of the external borders of the EU, we will not come to grips with the problem of illegal migration.” Notably, a similar narrative is voiced in the United States when dealing with immigration and borders.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Dr. Katherine Harris

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany. Academically, Dr. Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from The University of Maryland European Division, a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, and a Doctorate in Education from Rowan University with an emphasis in leadership and higher education in a global context.

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