Austria calls October election, far-right FPÖ could enter government

Austrian Chancellor and head of the Social Democratic Party (SPOe) Christian Kern (R) and Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter (C) and new leader of the Austrian Peoples Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz (L) during a session of the national assembly. Vienna, 16 May. [Christian Bruna/EPA]

Austria’s main parties agreed to hold an early parliamentary election on 15 October, Chancellor Christian Kern said yesterday (16 May), in a vote that might bring the far-right Freedom Party into government.

In the autumn of a year that will have seen Dutch, French, British and German general elections, the Alpine republic will decide its future course on immigration, labour and social policy and its position within the European Union.

Austria heads for snap election as coalition shatters

Austria’s youthful foreign minister took over as leader of the country’s main conservative party on Sunday (14 May) and called for a snap parliamentary election that centre-left Chancellor Christian Kern admitted he could not prevent.

“We have agreed on 15 October (for parliamentary elections),” Kern said after meeting leaders of all parliamentary parties. The next election was originally due to be held in autumn 2018.

For months, Kern’s government has been blocked in disputes over reform policies between his Social Democratic Party (SPO) and its conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) coalition partner, which have been exacerbated by internal wrangling in the ÖVP.

Since the ÖVP called for early elections on Friday and elected the 30-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz as its new leader on Sunday, its popularity ratings have jumped to 35% in a Research Affairs poll from around 20% in recent months.

That put the ÖVP ahead of the other parties in opinion polls. Before this, the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) had led the polls for more than a year with support of over 30%, followed by the Social Democrats.

The FPÖ presidential candidate’s narrow defeat in December’s run-off reflected the steep decline in Austrian voters’ trust in their main parties.

European relief at Austrian far-right election defeat

Austrian voters have resoundingly rejected anti-immigration and eurosceptic Norbert Hofer’s bid to become the European Union’s first far-right president, a result greeted with relief from centrist politicians across the continent.

“You should get up one after the other and apologise to the people for how you messed up,” FPÖ General Secretary Herbert Kickl told the government on Tuesday in parliament.

“You must not only be taught what the topics are, you not only need a helping hand on the election date,” he said. “You must also be shown how to rule better.”

The Social Democrats ruled with the FPÖ from 1983 to 1987. In 2000, the ÖVP and FPÖ agreed on a government headed by the ÖVP’s Wolfgang Schuessel, which led to a six-month diplomatic boycott of Austria by other European Union member states (see background).

But the FPÖ, whose charismatic late chairman Joerg Haider made it into Europe’s most successful far-right party with 27% in Austria’s 1999 general election, dropped to 10% in 2002 after a spate of in-fighting, policy squabbles and opposition to the EU’s eastward expansion.

Under its current leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ has gained massive support with a eurosceptic, anti-immigration and anti-Islam policy. Strache has called for “minus migration” and a ban on “fascistic Islam”.

Background

The EU has imposed sanctions only once against a member state. In 2000, 14 countries of the then 15-member EU reacted to the entrance of Jörg Haider's far-right Austrian Freedom Party into the Austrian government by freezing bilateral relations with the country.

No contacts or ambassadorial meetings at an intergovernmental level were held and Austrian candidates were not supported when EU international offices were assigned.

The sanctions were imposed in February 2000 and lifted seven months later when Haider stepped aside as party leader. He died in a car accident in 2008.

France, Belgium and Germany led the campaign to ostracise Vienna. This was seen largely to result from domestic political sensitivities to the far right. Then-President Jacques Chirac of France sought to oppose the country's Front National and Belgium faced pressure from the separatist Vlaams Blok.

By contrast, Italy and Denmark urged for the lifting of sanctions.