Analysis

Austria Election: Far-right's Success May Lead to Escalating anti-Muslim Rhetoric

Yet another far-right party is about to take up a seat at a European cabinet table, though observers caution that fear of Putin's influence is probably exaggerated

An election campaign posters of Austrian People's Party (OeVP) top candidate and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz are seen in Vienna, Austria, October 5, 2017. Posters read "Now or never!" and "Movement for Austria".
LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS

Thanks to voters in Austria’s national elections on Sunday, the 31-year-old “Wunderwuzzi” (whiz kid) Sebastian Kurz is on the threshold of great things – but so is the Trump-loving far-right.

With projections putting Kurz’s People’s Party (ÖVP) in the lead at around 32 per cent, the dapper Kurz is set to become by far the youngest leader in Europe. But the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, have also won big.

Under the 48-year-old Strache’s leadership, the FPÖ looks set to gain around 26 per cent of the vote, a considerable increase from the 20.5 per cent it gained in the last elections in 2013. With most observers expecting the FPÖ to enter into a coalition with Kurz’s ÖVP, another anti-Muslim, far-right party is about to take up a seat at a European cabinet table.

Strache, who’s led the FPÖ since 2005, is by all accounts a great fan of Donald Trump. Strache and an FPÖ delegation, including FPÖ presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, flew to Washington in January for Trump’s inauguration. While there, according to Strache, they met with “interesting political representatives of the United States,” though apparently not with Trump himself.

Some now-departed members of Trump’s team have also made friends with Strache. It was reported that in December 2016 Strache met with Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who was fired in short order for having made misleading statements about a meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Trump’s team, however, denied Flynn’s meeting with Strache took place.

Back at home Strache has made a show of cleaning up the party’s image. Its founders included former Nazis, it’s often pointed out, and its first leader was a former Nazi cabinet minister and SS officer. Strache has suspended members who make anti-Semitic statements – including a local councillor who made a Nazi salute – and instead focused his attacks on Austria’s 700,000 Muslims. He’s called for an end to the apparent “Islamization” of Austria, and doesn’t think Islam belongs in the country at all.

But Strache probably feels like he’s been hearing an echo for a while.

As foreign minister and ÖVP leader, Sebastian Kurz has been rather liberally borrowing the FPÖ’s lines on migrants and Muslims. He’s called for a ban on Muslim kindergartens – something the FPÖ has advocated for years – and argued that migrants rescued in the Mediterranean should be taken back to Africa. As foreign minister, Kurz was key in pushing through a “burqa ban,” now in place, and a law against foreign funding of mosques.

“Kurz has become the FPÖ’s lighter, soft-spoken version,” Anton Pelinka, a professor of nationalism studies at the Central European University, told Haaretz.

While it means the FPÖ has been successful in helping dominate Austria’s political discourse and tilt the country further right, it also means Kurz has been able to dent the FPÖ’s popularity. The party was polling up to 35 percent in 2016 at the peak of the migrant controversy.

Worry that Stratche will ramp up Islamophobia

The worry now, especially with the apparent strength of the FPÖ’s finish – a shade off its best-ever result, in 1999 – is that Strache will be able to push Austria’s new government even further to the right, and bring even harsher Islamophobic language into the country’s political debates.

“The problem is that if they tack to the right, Strache can always go one step further,” Nina Horaczek, a journalist and author of a biography on Strache, told the Guardian.

Even so, it may not be all that easy for Strache and friends in government.

“The FPÖ as Kurz’s coalition partner will be in an ambivalent situation,” Pelinka says, “The FPÖ cannot really allow Kurz to become too successful. But on the other side, the FPÖ has to prove its reliability.”

Another issue, adds Thomas Hofer, is that the FPÖ didn’t acquit itself particularly well in its last turn in government under Jorg Haider, falling prey to the trappings of power and engaging in the kind of political subterfuge they’d pledged not to take part in.

“They just weren’t up to the job,” says Hofer, a Vienna-based political consultant. “The question is can they avoid the mistakes they made then?”

Even if the FPÖ gets its wish and onetime presidential candidate Norbert Hofer lands as foreign minister, it doesn’t necessarily mean that radical changes in Austria’s international outlook are in the cards.

Thomas Hofer (no relation) notes that the FPÖ, while avowedly Euroskeptic, backed off its pro-Brexit talk once it realized how unpopular the idea was in Austria; Strache told Kurz during a recent debate that he and the FPÖ were “pro-Europe.”

Another thing the FPÖ is keen to do, says Hofer, is to try and shift Austria’s trade relations away from Germany and more towards the Visegrad countries of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary (the so-called “V4”).

But this won’t be as easy as it sounds, says Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher on central Europe at Freedom House.

“On the rhetorical level, yes, they will move even closer, especially when it comes to migration,” says Csaky. “But Austria doesn’t have much to gain from the V4 otherwise.”

Observer: Fear of Putin's influence probably exaggerated

It’s also no secret that the FPÖ is friendly with the Kremlin; last year the FPÖ even signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. But it’s hard to argue that the FPÖ will serve as any kind of Kremlin “Trojan horse” in the government, says Alexander Clarkson, in part because the Austrian political establishment is already somewhat “soft on Russia.”

“Good relations with Germany and the east European EU partners are more important,” says Clarkson, a lecturer in German and European Studies at King’s College London. “Like [Hungarian leader Viktor] Orban, it will say a lot and do nothing on Russia.”

Whether on Russia, the EU or other hot-button issues, Clarkson and other observers don’t expect the new far-right forces in Austria’s (eventual) coalition government to immediately start jockeying for radical changes. Instead, it’ll be more of the same FPÖ-inspired, Kurz-copied rhetoric on migration and Muslims.

“I’d worry about the FPÖ,” says Clarkson. “But it’s not going to suddenly flip over the table.”