New kid on the bloc: On Austria polls

Austria’s early elections on Sunday paid off for Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who, at 31, is set to become Austria’s Chancellor and the youngest head of government in Europe. Mr. Kurz, who took the reins of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party last May, has been called a wunderwuzzi, or whiz kid, for changing the face and fortunes of his party, till now a junior partner in the country’s ‘grand coalition’ led by the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SVP). Mr. Kurz has called his political party a movement, which he renamed the New People’s Party, invited newcomers to run for elections and changed the party’s social media strategy. Initial results give the People’s Party about 31% of the vote. The far-right Freedom Party (FPO), formed in the 1950s by former Nazis, has got roughly the same vote share as the SVP, till now the largest party, in the region of 27%. Two patterns have been reaffirmed by the latest results. First, voters are responding to younger contenders and voting them to power, at least in the West; Mr. Kurz is set to join a list that has the likes of France’s Emmanuel Macron, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, as well as the former leaders of Italy and Estonia, Matteo Renzi and Taavi Rõivas. Whether there has been a spill-over effect from the tech world, with its cohort of young leaders, to the political would be an interesting line of inquiry in the future. What is clear for now, however, is that Mr. Kurz has used his youth, as did some of his counterparts in other countries, to attract voters and reinvent a political party. A second pattern from Sunday’s results is the alarming growth of right-wing populism across the world and in Europe, including in Germany last month, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained a foothold in the Bundestag.

The People’s Party could now enter into a coalition with the Freedom Party, or stick with its old centre-left partner, but this time under Mr. Kurz. The FPO, which has an anti-Islam and anti-immigrant platform, has capitalised on the fears of Austrians, many of whom are wary of the influx of migrants into Europe. The party was at the forefront of the campaign to ban face coverings, a prohibition that took effect earlier this month. It wants Austria to join the Visegrád group of central European countries whose non-liberal values are posing a strain on its relations with western European Union colleagues. Worryingly, Mr. Kurz took his party further right during the campaign, taking credit for closing off the Western Balkan refugee route and calling for cuts in welfare benefits for migrants. While his gamble in calling an early election has paid off for him, fanning the flames of an exclusionist ideology is unlikely to earn political dividends in the longer term.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 12:01:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/new-kid-on-the-bloc/article19877767.ece

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