European Elections: Austria & Czech Republic Move Right

Sebastian Kurz at a campaign rally.

Austria’s October 15th election is going to shake up Austria’s government as the conservative Austrian People’s Party defeated the incumbent Social Democratic Party. The Austrian People’s Party won the election claiming 31.7% of the vote. The Austrian People’s Party is led by Sebastian Kurz, the current foreign minister of Austria. Kurz, 31, is now poised to become the next chancellor of Austria becoming the youngest head of state in Europe. The Austrian People’s Party identifies as a center-right wing party, but Kurz’s leadership has taken the party further to the right. Kurz’s term as Austria’s foreign minister has been marked by his advocacy for antimigrant polices including a burqa ban, government regulated Qurans, and tighter external border security for the EU. Additionally, Kurz is unlikely to form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party, which has been the ruling party in Austria since 2006. Instead Kurz is expected to form his coalition with the far-right wing Freedom Party of Austria.

The Freedom Party of Austria, which came in 3rd during Austria’s election with 26% of the votes, is one of the most extreme parties in Europe. The Freedom Party of Austria was founded in 1956 by a group of pan-German nationalists and was led by Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi Party member and SS Officer. The current Freedom Party of Austria does not stray far from its nationalistic and fascist roots. The party today is Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, and maintains close ties to Moscow. In December of 2016, the Freedom Party’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, signed an agreement with United Russia, the political party of Vladimir Putin. If a coalition is formed between the Freedom Party and Austrian People’s Party it would mean complete dominance of the Austrian government by right wing parties who strongly oppose immigrants and refugees. It would also be a major victory in Putin’s campaign of dividing Europe and causing disarray in the European Union by promoting nationalistic and Eurosceptic parties and causes. Sebastian Kurz has not announced which party he will form the coalition with, but on October 20th, the Austrian president asked him to begin forming a new government and most believe that Kurz will partner with the Freedom Party.

Reactions from European leaders so far have been mixed, Germany’s Angela Merkel congratulated Kurz and stated she hoped to work with Kurz on issues relating to the EU. Merkel was also critical of the Freedom Party’s success, stating that it would be a “major challenge” for Austria’s future. Kurz’s election also received praise from Hungary’s foreign minister who is in support of Kurz’s anti-migrant policies and strengthening the external borders for the European Union. The European Commission President stated Austria was set to face many challenges in the future, but ultimately stated to Kurz that they “wish you great success in establishing a stable, pro-European government”.

Additionally, the Czech Republic held their legislative elections on October 21st where the center-right party, ANO, won by claiming 30% of the votes. ANO’s 30% of the vote is a landslide as no other party earned more than 12% of the vote. ANO is led by Andrej Babiš, who some have referred to as the “Czech Donald Trump”. Babiš is a multi-billionaire populist who has taken the Czech political system by storm after founding ANO in 2011. Babiš follows the trend of European right-wing populists by being critical of the European Union, he opposes the EU’s policy on accepting refugees and migrants and is opposed to the Czech Republic adopting the Euro. Despite his critiques of the EU, Babiš did affirm his commitment to the European Union after his election delivering a statement saying, “We’re a firm part of the European Union”, but that they are “ready to fight for our interests in Brussels”. The success of Babiš in the Czech Republic and Kurz in Austria shows an increasingly divided European Union since France, Germany, and the Netherlands earlier this year reaffirmed their commitment to the Union by electing staunchly pro-Europe leaders.

 

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