How “Right-Wing Populism” Succeeded in Austria 

It might be supposed that it would be usual for major organs of the media to give something along the lines of regular acclaim to a person who has become the first millennial to head a European government, who is the youngest head of government in the world, who is the youngest individual ever to have held either the office of chancellor of Austria or that of president of the council of the European Union, and who, at thirty-two years of age, might well be transforming the politics of Europe. Fortunately, however, not much which is any way related to Sebastian Kurz can be considered usual. More than a political star who has risen to the top virtually overnight, Kurz is also one of the best hopes for the future of what remains of Christian Europe—and one of the worst nightmares for Europe’s liberal status quo.

Born in 1986, Kurz became chairman of the youth branch of the Austrian People’s Party by the time he was twenty-three. Four years later he was not only elected to the lower house of his country’s legislature but was appointed to the office of foreign minister. In the latter capacity he expanded that office’s duties to include the oversight of assimilation by immigrants, took steps to regain control of national borders following the migrant crisis of 2015 (playing a central role in halting illegal immigration via the Balkans), and successfully introduced a bill which prohibited mosques and imams in Austria from receiving foreign funding. Far from alienating potential supporters, Kurz’s strong stances resulted in his elevation to chairman of his entire party, in his leading his party to victory in the Austrian national elections of 2017, and in his appointment as chancellor, heading a “right-wing” coalition government.

As is true of many European countries, Austria has a multi-party political system within which it is unlikely that any party will attain a legislative majority but within which two parties have long been dominant. The practical result has tended to be a succession of coalitions between the leftist Social Democratic Party and the “moderate” wing of the historically conservative People’s Party—the two alternating between the roles of senior and junior partner depending upon which held a legislative plurality. That stranglehold has now been broken thanks to Kurz and his alliance with the “right-wing populist” Freedom Party—an alliance which was expected prior to the 2017 election but which has been facilitated by the fact that, for the first time in history, the Freedom Party holds a larger number of seats than what has become the third-place Social Democratic Party. Enemies of Kurz, his coalition government, and the Freedom Party charge that the latter is a mask that conceals two extreme ideological shifts which have occurred in the Freedom Party’s history. Originally founded as a “national liberal” movement with a substantial fascist element, the Freedom Party shifted to socialism in the late 1960s and then to “right-wing populism” in the mid-1980s. It first formed part of a coalition government during its socialist phrase, in alliance with the Social Democrats—one of whose greatest heroes, Karl Renner, gave public support to the Nazi regime following Germany’s 1938 occupation of Austria. Socialistic depravity covers a multitude of sins.

Since taking office as chancellor on December 17, 2017, Kurz has lived up to all reasonable expectations. This past June, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron led a summit addressing migration. The Austrian chancellor’s response was to order military training near some of the most vulnerable points along his country’s border. When German politician Horst Seehofer threatened to withdraw his Christian Social Union party from membership in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union due to the latter’s liberal immigration policies, Kurz issued a public statement praising increased debate over the issue. He has also begun to explore the possibility of sending border control personnel to the other side of the Mediterranean Sea to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing it in the first place. While Merkel and Macron are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their positions in the face of growing opposition, the Austrian government has been building important relationships with the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban and with leading Italian conservatives. Kurz has even guided successful passage of a law which prohibits the wearing of Muslim headscarves in primary schools. Such policies are rooted in Kurz’s highly vocalized commitment to a culture and a social and political order rooted in Christianity. His political inner circle includes a number of serious Christians and he regularly consults with Catholic clergy on political matters, has attended the “March for Jesus” held in Vienna to oppose a gay pride parade taking place in that city, and has introduced reforms to his country’s tax and benefits system that favor those who have children.

 

Many reasons exist to explain Kurz’s success and popularity. Unlike many figures in public life, he combines expertise in the details of policy formation and in behind-the-scenes political maneuvering with the ability to create a highly marketable public image. He isn’t a man to stop at suggesting that border patrol agents cross the Mediterranean, but one who will follow through with analysis of every conceivable aspect of logistics, training, international law, and so on which have bearing on how such a suggestion might be implemented or whether an alternative policy might be more effective. He has replaced the image of conservatives as “angry old men” with an image of conservatives as fashionable young ones. He understands economics and their importance, and is already improving his country’s economy and using such improvements to increase Austrian political influence in Europe. He is to no small degree helping young Austrians to regain a strong sense of national pride.

But there is another important factor which has little to do with Kurz himself. Many from all sectors of the political spectrum have made a fundamental miscalculation, assuming that widespread European commitment to the leftist ideologies of “tolerance” and “diversity” would result in their welcoming the Islamization of their continent. Such an assumption has failed to recognize the natural human tendency to pull one’s head out of the clouds the moment one has finally had a gun put to it. Terrorism and “no-go zones” have exposed the bankruptcy of leftist ideologies. Many who are tempted to accept these ideologies in principle invariably reconsider after seeing the devastating results.

(Photo credit: European People’s Party Helsinki Conference, Nov. 7-8, 2018 / Wikimedia)

James Baresel

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James Baresel earned a Master of Arts in philosophy from Franciscan University and a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Cincinnati. He has taught high school classes in English, Latin and the history of art and now works as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared in Catholic Herald, University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, Southern Literary Review, American History and New Oxford Review.

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