Difficult compromise: On Austria's snap election

Sunday’s snap election has ensured the return of Sebastian Kurz of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) as Austrian chancellor. The previous government led by Mr. Kurz collapsed in May over a corruption scandal involving his coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). But the more important question is whether Vienna’s centre-right party is ready to jettison the xenophobic right in its bid to form a new government. The answer would depend on how Mr. Kurz, known to be ideologically flexible, plays his cards in the coming weeks. Foremost, an alliance between Austria’s two mainstream parties and the biggest in these elections, ÖVP and the Social Democratic party (SPÖ), is almost ruled out. Neither is any longer animated by the idea of a grand coalition between them, no matter that circumstances warrant such pragmatism among centrist parties. That leaves Mr. Kurz the option to explore a three-way alliance among ÖVP and two smaller parties from Sunday’s polls — the Greens and the pro-business liberal NEOS. The Greens may have good reason to use the opening, given the chance it affords them to build on the popular support their counterparts gained from the European elections in May. Any positive movement in this regard cannot, however, be assumed given the fraught nature of such negotiations.

Instructive is the case of the so-called Traffic Light coalition talks in 2017, among German social democrats, liberals and the Greens that dragged on for months before the current government was installed in Berlin. On the other hand, it would be awkward for Mr. Kurz to revisit the alliance with the anti-immigrant FPÖ, especially after the latter lost over a third of its 2017 vote share in Sunday’s poll. That tie-up broke down after revelations that the former vice-chancellor and FPÖ leader had tried to hand control of a media house to a Russian oligarch for campaign support. After its poor showing, one view is that it should sit in the opposition. Another view is that under a new leader, the FPÖ is well placed to return to negotiations with the conservatives. Crucial to a reading of this scenario is also Mr. Kurz’s past embrace of FPÖ’s Islamophobia, prior to the 2017 elections. Given the fragmentation of the polity, coalition talks have been deadlocked for months in many European countries, warranting a second mandate even before the legislature met. Mr. Kurz may have to work with the FPÖ in order to break any impasse. He may well calculate that the far-right would be more pliant inside the government than in the opposition. In this fluid scenario, the best that can be expected of Mr. Kurz is an earnest attempt to find common ground among parties otherwise in competition. That is the recent lesson from Rome, where populists and the centre-left struck a difficult compromise.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 7:12:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/difficult-compromise/article29568332.ece

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