Austria just held an election that indicates a new direction for European politics: Increasingly, the centre-right might find itself working with the Greens.
The 33-year-old Sebastian Kurz, the winner of last Sunday’s election, is more than a successful small-country politician. He’s a weathervane for all of Europe. Two years ago, he scored a difficult victory for his Austrian People’s Party (OeVP) by swinging to the right and adopting some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the surging nationalists from the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe).
Then he built a coalition government with the FPOe, which drove the number of asylum applications in Austria sharply down. The repercussions were felt next door in Germany, where parts of the German centre-right held Kurz up as an example to Chancellor Angela Merkel, and where all the contenders to replace Merkel last year as leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union were to the right of her.
Then, earlier this year, Kurz changed course. His vice-chancellor, FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache, resigned after being caught in a spectacular sting operation in which he was recorded discussing corrupt deals with a woman he thought was a Russian billionaire’s niece.
The incident demonstrated that the far-right was not scandal-proof, notwithstanding United States President Donald Trump’s boast that he could shoot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue and still lose no voters. Even in Austria, a country with a powerful far right tradition barely broken by the Nazis’ defeat in the Second World War, an anti-establishment force could take a serious hit if it proved more corrupt than the establishment.
Sebastian Kurz's youthful charisma and hard work on the campaign trail allowed him to overcome a mini-scandal, in which a leftist newspaper reported that his party used creative accounting to stay within Austria’s campaign spending limits and that large sums were spent on his travel and grooming
Instead of clinging to power by preserving the coalition without Strache, Kurz chose to dissolve it and fight a new election. He appeared to target FPOe voters first, denouncing “political Islam” and expressing sympathy for people who felt that immigrants were crowding them out of their neighbourhoods.
His youthful charisma and hard work on the campaign trail allowed him to overcome a mini-scandal, in which a leftist newspaper reported that his party used creative accounting to stay within Austria’s campaign spending limits and that large sums were spent on his travel and grooming.
Kurz’s bold strategy largely paid off: The OeVP won 38 per cent of Sunday’s vote, compared with 31.5 per cent in 2017. The two parties that most wished he would fail — the FPOe and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe) — suffered the biggest losses. He attracted more swing voters from the FPOe than from any other party. But he still has to find a party with enough support to form a coalition government.
The FPOe isn’t attractive: There’s the scandal, and Kurz has bad chemistry with popular party member and former interior minister Herbert Kickl. The centre-left isn’t much of an option given its waning support in most of Europe, and in any case Kurz is reluctant to work with the SPOe, which has irked him by challenging the ethics of his cooperation with the far-right.
Enter the Green party, which has surged along with Greta Thunberg’s climate-strike movement. A coalition with the Greens might allow Kurz to co-opt the climate warriors without bending too much to their radical demands. Austrian ministers are relatively independent within their domains, so Kurz can give the Greens some cabinet posts without taking full responsibility for what they do. He can also counterbalance the Greens by inviting a third party, the pro-business Neos, into the coalition.
Talks to build a coalition might take months, as they tend to do in Austria. But a more stable government is worth it. So is showing the rest of Europe, and above all Germany, that an alliance of the centre-right and the environmentalists can work.
The conservatives’ fiscal sobriety and pro-business stance can balance the Greens’ zeal for saving the planet. If the parties can learn to cooperate and compromise, they can forge an enduring majority — an achievement that German conservatives will be tempted to imitate.
In 2017, Merkel tried and failed to form a coalition with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, largely because the personal ambitions of the Free Democrat leader, Christian Lindner, got in the way. But such a deal is likely to be the most viable option for Merkel’s chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, in 2021.
Recent polls place the Greens second after Merkel’s party, or maybe even on par. Hence, German politicians will be paying a lot more attention to Kurz’s strategic and tactical moves that Austria’s size would otherwise merit.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.