Austrian Vote Paves Way for Nationalist Party to Enter Government

Updated on
  • Freedom Party projected close to second place after election
  • Millennial conservative has mandate to form new government

Austrian People's Party Wins Vote

Austrian voters paved the way for the nationalist Freedom Party to enter government, heralding a shift to the political right that’s likely to make the country a more prickly ally for its European partners.

Sebastian Kurz

Photographer: Lisi Niesner/Bloomberg

Projections after Sunday’s election put the populists within reach of second place behind the People’s Party of Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, 31, who claimed victory after a campaign built on outflanking the Freedom Party with a hard-line stance on migration. He now has a mandate to form a coalition, replace Social Democrat Christian Kern as chancellor and become the world’s youngest government leader.

Read more: Austria may soon have the world’s youngest leader

With the Freedom Party poised to return to government for the first time since 2005, congratulations poured in from European nationalists including France’s Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, while the World Jewish Congress expressed concern. For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the result may chip away at a key ally’s pro-European stance in the years ahead.

"There won’t be a debate to leave the EU, but the Freedom Party is strong enough to demand significant concessions” and may lead Austria to align more often with eastern European countries that have challenged Merkel on issues including migration, said Thomas Hofer, a political consultant in Vienna. “Austria has mostly been an ally of Germany for decades, but that picture could change more often now," Hofer said.

While European populists were kept out of power in elections this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany, the Freedom Party has been part of Austria’s government before. Last year, Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer almost won a run-off for the Austrian presidency, a mostly ceremonial post. Any coalition with the People’s Party would have to be “a partnership of equals,” he said Sunday.

Austria’s two big parties, the People’s Party and the Social Democrats, have governed together for 44 of the 72 years since World War II. While Kurz and Freedom leader Heinz-Christian Strache might shake up Austria’s cozy political order, they broadly agree in pledging business-friendly policies, notably to scrap corporate taxes on retained profits. They’ll also stay in the German-led camp favoring fiscal austerity in the euro area.

EU Fallout

Strache, whose party’s last stint in government under Joerg Haider led to EU diplomatic sanctions against Austria, sought to ease the way to power by backing off strident rhetoric against the EU.

Where Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron may face increased resistance is on proposals to deepen European integration, maintaining economic sanctions on Russia and chastising eastern EU member countries seen as crimping democratic freedoms. Austria’s next government may also try to toughen EU policy toward Turkey.

While Sunday’s projected result doesn’t guarantee a coalition with the Freedom Party, Kurz has a mandate to form a government after an early election he triggered by breaking up a coalition with the Social Democrats this year. The final tally may still be influenced by postal ballots, which will only be counted on Monday.

“This is a strong mandate for us to bring about change in this country,” Kurz told cheering supporters in Vienna as the results came in. “It’s about establishing a new political style, a new culture.”

The swell of anxiety over immigration to Austria began building 2015, when almost 70,000 mostly-Muslim refugees sought asylum from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Schools and hospitals in the nation of 8.7 million struggled to accommodate the newcomers, and disagreements over whether it was fair to give immigrants generous welfare support dominate the media.

Frauke Petry, a former head of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, which drew inspiration from its Austrian counterpart, posted congratulations on Twitter. Ronald Lauder, who heads the World Jewish Congress, said the Freedom Party is “full of xenophobes and racists.”

“It is sad and distressing that such a platform should receive more than a quarter of the vote and become the country’s second party,” he said in an emailed statement. “My only hope is that they won’t end up in government.”

— With assistance by Matthias Wabl

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