Much of the press surrounding the rise of Sebastian Kurz — the conservative People’s Party’s (OVP) leader set to be Austria’s next chancellor — focuses on his youth and ambition rather than his far-right views on immigration. Austria, incidentally, is set to take over the presidency of the European Union late next year.
Near-final results from Austria’s parliamentary elections on Sunday show that People’s Party finished first, and Kurz is set to lead the country. As soon as the results from Sunday’s vote are confirmed, at 31, Kurz, will, indeed, be the youngest leader of a country in Europe, but he will also be one of the most anti-immigrant, and he has the power to turn his rhetoric into actual policies. But much of mainstream media isn’t talking about this.
In covering the significance of Sunday’s poll, here’s how CNN got the ball rolling: “Described by one political analyst as ‘the dream son-in-law for middle class Austrian women,’ and another as Austria’s version of Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, Kurz’s rise has been as remarkable as it has been improbable.” The Associated Press called him “smart and articulate” while downplaying the realities of Kurz’s hardline views on immigration, and USA Today called him “telegenic.”
The Business Insider mentioned Kurz’s views, but it ranked seventh in their list of things that were notable about him. Here’s what was of less interest than who Austria’s future leader is dating: “Kurz [sic] anti-immigration stance has been so radical, and his speeches so inflammatory, that the nationalist [Freedom Party] FPO party accused him of plagiarism.” Indeed, the FPO [the Freedom Party], headed by former neo-Nazi Heinz-Christian Strache, has accused Kurz of copy and pasting their platform and “putting a nice smile on it,” according to The Washington Post.
That Kurz’s words and image resonated with voters is not in doubt, and that he is among politicians who has the ability “to seem as they are at one with the crowd,” said Spencer P. Boyer, who under the Obama administration served as the the National Intelligence Officer for Europe in the National Intelligence Council (NIC) — the center for long-range strategic thinking within the U.S. Intelligence Community.
“Kurz really did appeal to these right-wing voters with his pledges to shut down migrant routes, and curtail benefits for immigrants and … if there is a right-wing coalition with the Freedom Party, they’re going to be joining forces with countries such as Hungary and Poland as yet another player in Europe that is pursing a much tougher policy on refugees and migration,” he added.
Boyer, currently an adjunct assistant professor in the BMW Center for German and European Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, added that “there are very powerful forces playing out across the Western world…a cultural component, a fear of migration, of cultural change.”
“Some of that rhetoric was appealing to people in our own countries, certainly some of the ideas coming out of the Trump campaign, in terms of taking the country back, keeping us safe from outsiders, resonated with a certain portion of the population,” he said.
Kurz, currently the country’s foreign minister, has equated migrants and refugees being rescued from drowning in the Mediterranean as getting “a ticket to the heart of Europe” because rescuing people from a watery grave “leads to people being able to come to Austria, Germany or Sweden more and more will set out.” Austria has taken in between 1 and 1.5 percent of its population in refugees since 2015 — that translated to 90,000 refugees in 2015.
In anticipation of Sunday’s vote, the U.N.’s refugee agency issued a statement in August, which while stopping short of mentioning Kurz’s party, the OVP (Österreichische Volkspartei), made clear reference to the party’s policies: “…we view xenophobic debates and exclusionary tendencies with concern. We call on all democratic parties to carry out political debates thoughtfully and to put what unites above what divides,” read the statement. “Political debates that are conducted at refugees’ expense reinforce xenophobic tendencies.”
Taken in combination with the results of German polls in September — which saw the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party make historic gains, the success of Kurz and his party mean a stronger alliance between more fringe far-right European elements and the normalization of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic policies. While the far right has suffered defeats in some countries — notably by Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential elections in June and in Geert Wilders’ loss in March elections in the Netherlands, Kurz’s victory is another step back.
Kurz’s victory strengthens the stance of governments such as Hungary’s, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban — one of Kurz’s most vocal supporters — has built razor wire-enforced fences to keep migrants and refugees out, and, in fact, is asking the EU to pay for it.
Kurz in September also offered to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump to Austria to discuss “the most important challenges to international politics,” without elaborating. While Trump has yet to comment on Kurz’s victory, what’s clear is that his base — certainly anti-immigrant with elements of white nationalism — have much in common with the white supremacists in the United States who support Trump. As Kurz seeks to enforce stricter immigration policies, so too does Trump, whose administration is set to roll out yet another version of its Muslim ban on Wednesday.
Kurz’s victory is also a troubling signal to those who worry about the future of Europe as a multicultural society. Next week’s election in the Czech Republic could see Andrej Babis, a business tycoon with ties to Moscow, become the country’s next prime minister. In Italy, the worry that the Five Star Movement — the increasingly right-leaning, anti-immigration party — could take power in the 2018 elections is so real that lawmakers are pushing to pass a new law (already passed in the Lower House) that would make it harder for fringe parties to gain a majority over centrist parties.
“The big story is that [Kurz’s] party really did adopt much of the nationalist agenda … that this is still an incredibly potent force in European decision-making, and European parties across the spectrum are paying attention to that,” said Boyer.
What’s alarming he added, is that, “So many European countries have seen their own politics be shifted to the right in terms of dealing with migration/immigration challenges that…this is a little big more par for the course than its been in the past.”