Headlines are already trumpeting the gains of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) in the Austrian parliamentary elections, which ended on Sunday evening with 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz of the center-right New People's Party (OVP) declaring victory, but it should be noted that FPO's preliminary results are far from unprecedented.
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Led by Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPO is projected in the exit polls to receive around 26 percent of the vote, putting the party in a dead heat for second place with the Social Democrats (SPO), which has lost power. But eighteen years ago, in the 1999 election, the FPO already reached 27 percent. Four years ago, in 2013, the far-right party reached 20.5 percent, and their rise on Sunday was partly due to the dissolution of the populist right-wing Stronach party.
Despite Kurz's proclamation of victory, the reported right-wing surge in these elections is also slightly misleading. Together, OVP and FPO now have around 57 to 58 percent of the vote and are likely to form a coalition, though it will take months of negotiations and other permutations are feasible. Right-of-center parties have traditionally had a majority in Austrian politics, but until 1999, when FPO first entered the coalition, the far right was regarded beyond the pale. The change is one of tone more than substance – today, the consensus is that the far right has nothing to be ashamed of.
The real shift rightwards lies not just in FPO’s success, but even more so in the way that Kurz has transformed the unpopular center-right OVP into a much more muscular nationalist movement, focused on clamping down on immigration and Austria’s Muslim minority. Kurz has not only pushed his party much further toward the far right, he has rebranded it as the “Kurz’s List,” a personal platform for his own campaign for the chancellorship. An OVP-FPO coalition, if it is indeed formed, will be much more similar to the nationalist governments in power in other central European countries – Hungary and Poland – than German Chancellor Angela Merkel's more staid centrist administration. Kurz’s new government, especially if it includes the FPO, will be much more critical of the European Union than Austria has been in the past.
Kurz has saved his party in a drastic rebranding exercise, succeeding where other centrist parties in Europe have failed. He may have ridden the wave of anti-immigrant populism in Europe all the way to the chancellor’s office, but the newly nationalist OVP hasn’t succeeded in stemming the rise of the far right. The Austrian result has shown one noteworthy anomaly – in other Western countries, the younger generation seems to be more open to emigration and international cosmopolitism. In contrast, the youngest leader in the world is now a figurehead for the rise of the populist and isolationist right.