Austria Must Keep the Populists Out of Government

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sebastian Kurz is a wunderkind of European politics. At 33, he is already a former chancellor of Austria — and could well be the next one, too. He now has a choice to make, one that will be watched across the European Union.

Kurz’s center-right Austrian People’s Party looks set to win a strong plurality, but not a majority, in Sunday’s elections. To regain power, he’ll thus be tempted to renew an unsavory coalition with the populist Freedom Party on the far right. That would be a grave mistake and a terrible signal to Austria and the broader EU. Any other outcome, no matter how messy, is preferable.

In his career to date, Kurz has displayed impressive political talent. After the 2017 election, however, he unwisely allied with the Freedom Party, bringing it into its third coalition government since the 1980s. Like many other EU politicians facing fragmented parliaments, Kurz thought he could sanitize the populists by giving them responsibility. This was an illusion. Austria should serve as a warning to others ready to coddle the far right.

The Freedom Party, founded in 1955, has always been a harbinger of European populism. Under the leadership of Joerg Haider, it rose to become the third-biggest bloc in Austrian politics during the 1990s. Haider (who died in a car crash in 2008) was photogenic in lederhosen and adroit at dog-whistling, even offering cordial words at gatherings of Austrian Wehrmacht veterans that included former members of the SS. He once praised Hitler’s employment policies as superior to those of post-war Austria’s.

To this day, the party is anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-elite, and indeed anti most things and people who do not fit its nativist idea of Austria. It maintains close ties to Russia and the party of President Vladimir Putin — so close that some states in the western EU have been reluctant to share intelligence with Austria, lest its interior ministry, formerly run by the Freedom Party, pass it on to Putin.

The party’s last stint in government ended when a video came to light in May. Shot in 2017 in a villa in Ibiza, Spain, it shows an actress posing as a rich niece of a Russian oligarch and two politicians of the Freedom Party, including Kurz’s subsequent vice chancellor, discussing corrupt deals that made Austria sound like a banana republic. Enough was enough, Kurz decided. A snap election was called.

Much is now at stake. Austria has a big role to play in finding a common European approach to migration and euro-area reform, as well as mediating between eastern and western EU member states, and between the EU and the western Balkans. It can’t play this role credibly with the Freedom Party in government.

Kurz should also be aware of Austria’s reputation as a bellwether, especially in Germany. In 2000, when his party first partnered with the Freedom Party, this was considered taboo in the EU, and led to a diplomatic boycott for a few months. Today’s EU is “more Austrian.” Populists are in power in Hungary and Poland, recently out of power but still hungry for it in Italy, and potentially close to power in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Austria must stop normalizing these destructive movements.

Granted, Kurz’s other options aren’t terribly appealing. A coalition with the Social Democrats would require overcoming personal resentments. A three-way deal with the Greens and the pro-business Neos would take some ideological acrobatics on all sides. A minority government could prove unstable.

But any of these options is better than another run with the Freedom Party.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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