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22 January 2019

Has Austria Become a Different Country?

"The government programme concentrates on structural modernisation and shows a liberal economic mix of reducing the tax burden and regulations for business, as also for the individual tax payer. Despite the obvious differences of the coalition partners on the future of European integration, the government did agree on a pro-European commitment which circles around the common denominator that in the future the EU should 'do less but (do what it does) more effectively'."


On a mild evening in Vienna in December 2018, Sebastian Kurz, the young Austrian Federal Chancellor and Chairman of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), welcomed more than a thousand friends and followers to celebrate his first year in office with mulled wine and sweet chestnuts. There was a relaxed and rather self-confident atmosphere – with good reason. After more than ten years as junior partner in a coalition government with the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), the conservative ÖVP under the then new leadership of Sebastian Kurz had called a snap election in the autumn of 2017. He had won the election with 31.5% of the vote, with the Social Democrats trailing by almost 4 per cent (26.9%) closely followed by the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) with 26%. In December 2017, the ÖVP and the FPÖ formed a centre-right coalition which ended what many had disparagingly called the stalemate “Grand Coalition” consisting of the two centrist parties. Following the only partly controlled massive immigration of asylum-seekers (mainly from Syria and Afghanistan) in 2015–2016, it was not surprising that Austrian voters had given a strong mandate to the two parties which had campaigned on migration issues, with a commitment to better control and more restrictive immigration laws for Austria.

But there is also a more country-specific reason for the ongoing changes in Austrian domestic politics. The end of a coalition of the two centrist moderate parties which had dominated Austrian politics since the end of the Second World War is accompanied by an apprehensible weakening of the political influence of the institutionalised “social partnership“ (Sozialpartnerschaft) between employers and workers, something with which the two centrist political parties were identified. New legislation to liberalise labour laws, changes to the organisational structure of the social security system and the return to a more traditional structure in primary and secondary education are all changes implemented in the last few months without prior agreement by social partnership bodies.

 

A NEW POLITICAL AGENDA

 

The two government parties go forward with an agenda which is a distinct combination of law and order policies combined with liberal economic policies and social policies which are based on the idea that citizens should be motivated and enabled to take more personal responsibility for their lives.

Politically Austria already looks like a different country today. For decades there has been a constant majority of votes to the right of the centre, yet a centre-right coalition government held power only between 2000 and 2007. The Austrian population shows no appetite for radical changes. Chancellor Kurz and his coalition partner Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) seem to have learned this lesson from the first ÖVP–FPÖ coalition. Constant bickering and ideological confrontations within the coalition government had made it impossible to follow a clear agenda of reform. This resulted in a return of the old “Grand Coalition” in 2007. Today the teams of the ÖVP and the FPÖ manage an impressive governmental “message control”, which annoys the opposition parties and liberal media alike. Chancellor Kurz also seems to have understood two more lessons from the first centre-right experiment. You have to give your junior partner in government a chance to deliver on election promises they had given to their voters. And you should not be too hasty with your own agenda. Take your time, but always be consistent. The right-wing radical thinking that still exists among some members of the government’s junior partner (FPÖ) is more of a problem for the FPÖ leadership than for Chancellor Kurz and has not affected the latter’s high popularity rating.

The government has so far not had much to fear from the political opposition. The Social Democrats recently changed their leader and are still licking their wounds following their defeat. They remain undecided as to whether the party should move further to the left. The Austrian Green Party (Die Grünen) lost all their parliamentary seats in the 2017 elections and also had a leadership change, while the small Austrian Liberal Party (NEOS) likewise appointed a new leader in 2018. Even the small, new and left-wing populist party called “JETZT” (formerly “Liste Pilz) changed their chairperson after the election.

It is interesting to note that even the Austrian Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former party chairman of the Green Party, who had won the presidential election against a candidate from the FPÖ after a long and divisive election campaign in 2016, seems to have accommodated himself to the new centre-right government. He is outspoken when he criticises radical voices among FPÖ party members and followers, but he also stresses that he has a good “working relationship” with the government.

For traditionally stable and economically wealthy “neutral” Austria, such political discontinuities come close to a revolution. The main reason for a visibly changed political system lies in the migration issue and especially in the problems around the integration of migrants, which began to dominate Austrian politics following the massive “refugee” influx in the summer of 2015. The then Austrian Foreign Minister Kurz responded to the migration crisis by demanding better control of the external EU borders and “closure” of the refugee routes through the Western Balkans. Per capita Austria is among the EU member countries with the highest percentage of asylum seekers. And today more than 50 per cent of the primary school children in Vienna have a mother tongue which is not German. When you add to this the fact that in traditionally very Catholic Austria there are today more than 700,000 Muslims and a similar number of Orthodox Christians, integration becomes a very real challenge. The challenge becomes even greater in times when “identity politics” is offered as a solution to this challenge both by progressive and conservative thinkers in their different ways. The new Austrian government has adopted an almost “Habsburgian” approach to this problem. Religious and ethnic communities are given quite extensive group rights, but all citizens have to adhere to a common value system – that is, to an Austrian narrative.

 

WHAT IS DIFFERENT IN AUSTRIA TODAY?

 

The fears of a majority of the Austrian population related to the migration influx brought the centre-right coalition to power, but both government parties know that keeping this topic high on the agenda may be not enough to keep them in power over the longer term. For 2019 the government has announced plans for improved financing of care for the elderly, and it is preparing a tax reform and new moves on digitalisation. This agenda fits well into the overall worldview of conservative parties that the “state should interfere less but more effectively”.

The new Conservative political agenda has been framed by a quasi-non-affiliated grouping supporting the young ÖVP-chairman Sebastian Kurz (“Liste Sebastian Kurz, Neue Volkspartei). As a result, even the signature colour of the party has been changed from “black” to “turquoise”. There is little evidence of ideological fervour, but rather more of pragmatism. When the Chancellor is asked by the media about his ideological convictions, he refers to “Christian-Democratic” values in a rather general way. Similarly the Vice-Chancellor and Party Chairman of the FPÖ has abandoned the tough right-wing rhetoric from opposition times and substituted it with soothing talk about the liberal beginnings of student corporations during and after the Revolution of 1848 and the need to overcome strong Austrian étatiste traditions, which he equates with socialist “misconceptions”.

Does all this amount to a “silent (counter-)revolution” in a welfare state, which, under social democratic leadership, had been modelled on that of Sweden? It is too early to tell. But there are quite clear indications that Austria is aligning itself more closely with Central European political trends. The verdict is still out whether this may lead to an Orbán-style “illiberal democracy”, or to a Kaczyński-style “patriotic nationalism”, or even a Babiš-style business-friendly “economics first” regime. For the time being it must suffice to make a few observations on why the new Austrian agenda is more likely to produce its own Kurz-style “new conservatism”.

The government programme concentrates on structural modernisation and shows a liberal economic mix of reducing the tax burden and regulations for business, as also for the individual tax payer. Despite the obvious differences of the coalition partners on the future of European integration, the government did agree on a pro-European commitment which circles around the common denominator that in the future the EU should do less but (do what it does) more effectively”. On issues of migration and the integration of migrants, the language and the actions are tough, aiming at more regulation and more control. In most other political areas, language and actions are conservative, rather than right-wing and populist. What certainly has been achieved by proceeding rather carefully with programmatic changes during the first year of government is the perception that, in spite of polarised public opinion in the Austrian and international media regarding this centre-right Austrian government, there is not much evidence of heavily polarised public opinion in Austria.




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