Austrian Socialists on verge of breaking far-right coalition taboo

Carrying banners and protest placards some 10,000 Austrians gathered in Vienna for a demonstration against the coalition deal between the ÖVP and the FPÖ back in February 2000. [Herbert Pfarrhofer/ EPA]

The Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) is on the verge of breaking a long-standing taboo on forming political alliances with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). EURACTIV Germany reports.

Now that the SPÖ’s coalition with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has collapsed, following the appointment of Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz as the leader of the latter, the Socialists are looking for fresh allies.

But since a deal with the Greens and the liberals (NEOS) seems unlikely, the SPÖ is turning to the far right-wing populist FPÖ, which has so far been taboo.

For 31 years, a quasi ‘coalition ban’ has been included in the party programme. When the SPÖ formed a government with the FPÖ in the state of Burgenland in 2015, that decision was heavily criticised.

But, in the meantime, many elements of the party, from the regions to trade unions, have been pressuring its leaders to have a rethink. The fear of being ousted from government is now weighing heavier than concerns about adhering to party principles.

Austrian Chancellor and SPÖ leader Christian Kern has long been trying to forge a working relationship with his FPÖ counterpart, Heinz-Christian Strache. To this end, he has drawn up a list of criteria for future coalition building.

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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.

But Kurz’s sudden takeover of the ÖVP reins, following the resignation of Reinhold Mitterlehner in early May, has changed the timeframe. Elections were originally scheduled for late next year but Kurz moved that date up to this October.

Kern recently pledged to announce his preferred coalition partner ahead of the election. But the decision will now be made through a vote of around 200,000 party members. Some want that choice made before the October vote but some want it only to be announced afterwards.

The delicacy of the subject means that the SPÖ leadership is keen to leave the decision up to the party base.

The events of 2000, when the ÖVP formed a coalition with the FPÖ under the late Jörg Haider, are still fresh in the memory. It was the first time the EU imposed sanctions on one of its own members.

But the party has since managed to convince many voters that it is “no longer a party of the racists and extremists”, opening the door for another attempt to enter power.

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Austrian centre-left Chancellor Christian Kern yesterday (11 January) launched a bid to win back voters from the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), presenting a 10-year plan focused on creating jobs, boosting public investment and taxing multinationals.

Over the last 30 years, the Socialists have lost two-thirds of their members and about half of their voter potential. The ÖVP has faced a similar decline and the FPÖ has been all too happy to hoover up the pieces.

The exclusion of the FPÖ from government has been a hot topic in Austria for a number of years and has become more and more relevant as the ÖVP and SPÖ continue to lose voters.

Defeats in the Netherlands and France for the far-right have worried Austria’s Socialists, who fear that it will be their country that is the first to succumb to populism and that the FPÖ will find itself in the role of kingmaker in October.

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