Austria set to appoint world’s youngest leader as country lurches to the right in national elections

The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has come out on top of the country’s parliamentary election held on Sunday 15th October, with the right-wing nationalist FPO making major gains in an election that has seen the country shift to the right.

The conservative ÖVP have built upon their result of 24% in 2013, and look set to become the parliament’s largest party. Major obstacles still exist in the path to building a government that would see leader Sebastian Kurz become Chancellor and the world’s youngest leader at just 31 years of age.

That likelihood is dependent on who is willing to build a coalition with them however. The battle for second place is a close one, with 2013’s victors, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), tussling with right wing nationalists, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Who finishes in second place in the vote share is likely to have a big impact on the make-up of the next government.

The former government, a grand coalition formed between the SPÖ and the ÖVP, collapsed in spring and it is almost certain the two won’t enter another agreement. A partnership between the ÖVP and FPÖ may seem most likely, but there are other potential options on the table.

It is understood that the SPÖ are open to a deal with FPÖ providing they are the senior partner in what would be a junior coalition. This would end a four decade ban on them working with far-right parties, and exclude Kurz’s ÖVP from forming a government.

This likelihood is uncertain however, with many questioning just how the social democratic SPÖ would feasibly work with a party rooted around nationalism, anti-immigration and Euroscepticism.

The last time the FPÖ entered the government in 2000, other EU states imposed short sanctions on Austria in an effort to remove ‘extremists’ from the government. Although a partnership may still be a possibility, it may be a step too far for a wounded SPÖ to befriend a previously sworn enemy in a bid to hold on to power.

So, it seems most likely that the FPÖ will enter a coalition with Kurz and the ÖVP in what will likely be one of western Europe’s most ring wing governments for generations. They may feel confident that the political landscape will now be more accepting of their prospective partners, following the rise of right wing populism across Europe. But just how typical of Europe is the FPÖ’s rise, or is it unique to Austria?

The first point to address is just how polarised Austria has been in recent years. In 2016, their Presidential election resulted in a shoot-out between Alexander Van der Bellen of the left wing Green Party and the FPÖ’s very own Norbert Hofer. Van den Bellen won out by a small margin then, but the election proved that the country that straddles the eastern Alps is a hugely divided nation.

This time, the Greens, who are traditionally one of Europe’s strongest green parties, saw their vote majorly falter. Their vote share, although perhaps not the specific voters, was picked up and then shared between the ÖVP and FPÖ. This result mirrors September’s German Bundestag elections, where the green vote fell and the Alternative for Germany party soared to a record high. The political relationship between Germany and Austria is a close one, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hope that her next counterpart, likely Kurz, will shy away from any partnership that will pull the country, and Europe, further to the right.

As Europe continues to struggle against Euroscepticism and right-wing populism, in the wake – but not a result- of Brexit, the metropolitan European Union figures in Brussels have already pleaded for caution from Kurz.

His party has rebranded itself as anti-immigration and Eurosceptic in the run up to this election, and their success and the FPÖ’s rise is indicative of how Austria is just the latest country to move to a weary position against the establishment of the EU. The country of just under 9 million people sits in the centre of Europe geographically, whether it now sits on its political fringe or toward the centre of its mainstream is yet to be clarified.

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