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Go Right, Young Man!

One lesson from yesterday’s early elections to the National Council in Austria is this: the mainline center-right and center-left parties in Europe are not necessarily consigned to ever-dwindling results if they can reorient themselves to better address the views and demands of the population and modernize their moribund party structures. 

There is no clearer example of this than new, 31-year-old Chancellor-to-be Sebastian Kurz and his Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) which took first place for the first time in the last four elections, increasing its performance over 2013 by 7.6 percent.

Since the salad days of former Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel in the early 2000s, the ÖVP has found itself in a series of unhappy grand-coalition marriages with the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ).  Always the junior partner in these tie-ups, the ÖVP was unable to successfully define for itself an identity that voters would come out to support, and it bled voter share to the right.  The darkest moment of this era was the fifth-place finish of the party’s candidate in the first round of the 2016 presidential election – by far the worst performance for a candidate of the party in the entire history of the Second Republic.  Either as cause or result, the party went through a series of leaders like a hot knife through butter in this period:  in the last ten years, the party has had five chairmen and seven secretaries general. 

But the disastrous results of the 2016 presidential elections seems to have served as a sort of wake up call.  Staring in the face the potential of permanent junior partnership or worse, perhaps the ultimate slow death of the party, the ÖVP found a savior in the form of Sebastian Kurz, and those voices in the party who had warned for years of the dangerous blurring effect of a decade of grand coalitions were significantly strengthened. 

Kurz himself appeared on this scene as if sent from central casting in the late spring of 2017.  Serving since 2013 as the youngest foreign minister in Europe in two grand-coalition cabinets, and before that from 2011-2013 as State Secretary for Integration, Kurz embodied a number of characteristics the party understood it desperately needed.  He is obviously young (if successful in crafting a government, he will be – at 31 – the youngest head of government in the world) and thus much better able to position the ÖVP to look toward the future and not the past.  But he also has behind him an entire (admittedly young) lifetime in a number of the party’s key institutions, including its youth wing and its Political Academy and is, as such, hardly an outsider seeking to crash the party.

Perhaps most important, though, is Kurz’ position on immigration and integration – a position that has been developing steadily since he first began his service as State Secretary in 2011.  From the outset, it was clear that Kurz was unwilling to accept what had been the status quo in Austrian integration policy and in this he closely mirrored a clear majority of the Austrian citizenry.  He pushed back on foreign funding for the country’s Muslim organization and has regularly spoken of the danger that radicalized elements of the community pose to Austria and to Europe.  And he famously negotiated the 2016 deal that closed the so-called Balkan Route of migrants and refugees that, by dint of geography and history, almost inevitably led to Austria and then points beyond.

So when the governing grand coalition was making its last gasps earlier this year, Kurz was the game changer.  Carefully having kept himself out of the rotating door of party leaders so far, he made the decision to go all in, laying out a series of demands for restructuring and rebranding of the party as preconditions for taking the top job and leading the party into yesterday’s elections. 

Among other things, party decision-making was to be streamlined; historic bastions of power inside the party were broken or by-passed; Kurz’ name would be the lead in front of the party’s traditional name on the ballot; and the new branding would include a hip, new modern color – turquoise – instead of the traditional party black.  With a careful eye on Kurz’ sustained popularity in all opinion polling, the old party leadership supported the change and Kurz was overwhelmingly elected chairman of this old, yet new creation in May 2017, at which point the campaign had in effect begun. 

Through a number of twists and turns, including a negative campaigning scandal that was quite harsh by the genteel standards of Austrian politics (and even involved an Israeli connection), the Kurz/ÖVP lead was never really in doubt.  Having cut the ground out from under the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) with his tougher positions on migration and embodying a new, modern approach to politics that made the SPÖ seem old and somehow tired, Kurz and the party finished first with 31.7 percent of the vote.  The SPÖ squeaked into second place, driving the FPÖ to third.  The Liberal grouping called NEOS took fourth, and the Greens didn’t make the country’s four-percent threshold.  Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Kurz will now form a right-of-center government with the FPÖ – recreating a coalition last seen in the 2000s.

Some see parallels to Kurz in Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who also took a firmer position on immigration and integration during the elections in his country earlier this year; others make comparisons to French President Emmanuel Macron.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one compares him to Angela Merkel – the real political titan on the European center-right scene.  The reality is that – at least for now – Sebastian Kurz has taken the troubled enterprise that was the Austrian People’s Party, breathed new life into it, and made it (just behind him) a winner again.  This may well be a model for other center-right operations across Europe.