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Austria's Lessons for Europe

Peter Rough

Reinhold Mitterlehner must have felt a tinge of vindication. In April, the former boss of the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) published his memoir, which features a scathing portrayal of Sebastian Kurz, his successor as party leader. Last month, six weeks after Mitterlehner’s reflections hit bookstores, parliament ousted Kurz and his government following a scandal that shook Austria to its core. The parliament’s expression of no-confidence, the first in the country’s history, made Kurz the shortest serving chancellor of all time. A caretaker government under the leadership of the jurist Brigitte Bierlein is now running the country until elections can be held this fall.

To his critics, Kurz finally got his comeuppance—his just desert for forming a government with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ). No amount of success could absolve Kurz of that original sin in the eyes of his critics, but they felt especially vindicated on Friday, May 17th, when German media published a story worthy of a John le Carré novel. They reported that Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the FPÖ, had been lured to a villa on the island of Ibiza two years earlier to meet with the wealthy, attractive niece of a Russian oligarch. Alas for Strache, the woman was a fake and the villa outfitted with hidden cameras. Over heavy drinking and with cameras running, Strache breezily plotted the takeover of Austrian media and politics, unwittingly ending his career in the process.

The lesson for Austria and Europe, coming off parliamentary elections, is more complicated than the simple invocation not to get in bed with right-wing populists, however. The case of Mitterlehner shows why. In 2014, when he took over as chairman of the ÖVP, his party served in a so-called grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPÖ). By 2016, the government was badly strained, exhausted by the refugee crisis and plagued by frequent infighting. The FPÖ shot into first place in the polls. In his memoir, Mitterlehner casts Kurz as the quintessential opportunist—a rising star who seized on the turmoil to plot his own path to power at the expense of the government. To this character flaw, Mitterlehner added an ideological critique: Kurz’s stratagem was based on coopting the FPÖ. According to Kurz’s own planning documents, relayed by Mitterlehner, he intended to appear as “a politer Strache” who would emphasize “FPÖ themes but with a focus on the future.”

Alas for Mitterlehner, this is not much of a critique; election results and opinion polls suggest that this is essentially what Austrians want. Sebastian Kurz is one of the most popular heads of government ever to be felled by a vote of no-confidence. The day before his ouster, the ÖVP achieved its best ever result in the European parliamentary elections (in contrast to the Social Democrats, who turned in their worst performance of all-time).

In fact, parliament’s dismissal of Kurz stemmed from the aftershocks of the Ibiza scandal, not from the performance of the government. Following Strache’s resignation, Kurz had moved to dismiss Herbert Kickl, the FPÖ firebrand and minister of the interior who had been in charge of party finances at the time of the Ibiza scandal. The decision outraged the Freedom Party, whose ministers resigned en masse and joined the SPÖ in tossing Kurz overboard as well. These parliamentary maneuvers had more to do with scandal and personnel than substance and performance.

Today, it is as hard to imagine Kurz losing the snap elections as it is to envision him governing with either the SPÖ or the FPÖ in the next government. And yet, even a spectacular result of, say, 40 percent would force Kurz to search for a coalition partner. Florian Klenk, an influential progressive Viennese journalist, has raised the idea of a coalition with the Greens for a more “progressive, feminist, and ecological” government. Kurz himself is said to prefer the libertarians, but it is unclear if either option (or both together) will suffice for a majority.

Irrespective, Kurz will encounter the same dilemma as that of his sister parties across the continent. Increasingly, directionless grand coalitions are weak tea for the passions of today’s politics. In several countries, the center-right faces a new choice: should it build majorities with the help of nationalist or progressive forces? In Austria, Kurz has shown the former to be popular. The FPÖ may no longer be a viable option for the next coalition government, but the substance of the just-ended government in Vienna serves as a roadmap for what responsible, successful policies might look like. That may not suit good-willed, earnest politicians like Reinhold Mitterlehner, but it is proving far more popular than the establishment consensus of

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