Austria’s Anti-Immigrant Freedom Party Enters Government; Wins Key Ministry Posts
Two months ago, in Europe’s latest shocking, anti-establishment outcome, Austria’s 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz became the world’s youngest leader after his conservative People’s Party won the Austrian National Council elections, making him Austria’s youngest Chancellor in history, while the establishment Social Democrat party suffered its “worst result since Hitler’s rule.”
And now, two months later, in a double whammy for Europe’s outraged liberal establishment, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) – which finished third in October’s elections with 26% of the vote, less than a percent behind the Social Democrats, has joined a coalition government with Sebastian Kurz and his People’s Party (OVP). The agreement between the People’s Party and the Freedom Party, which is returning to government after more than a decade’s absence, was struck on Friday, the two parties’ leaders, Sebastian Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache announced in a joint news conference.
Austria’s president approved the new coalition on Saturday, two months after inconclusive elections. According to BBC, the coalition government makes Austria the only country in Western Europe to have a far-right party in power.
Introducing the new government, and the 180-page document setting out its agenda, Mr Kurz said the two parties had agreed “on a clear pro-European outlook”. Meanwhile, Strache, who in January advocated a law similar to the ban on Nazi practices to be introduced against “fascist Islam,” spoke about “mutual appreciation” with Kurz, adding that they share “the responsibility for our homeland Austria and for the people in this country.”
While the two parties have yet to unveil the details of the coalition agreement, some of the key points that will shape the next government have already been discussed: among them is a further crackdown on migration
“We want to reduce the burden on taxpayers … and above all we want to ensure greater security in our country, including through the fight against illegal immigration,” Kurz said.
And while the FPO will be the junior coalition partner, it has already secured several critical posts in the new cabinet. Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache will be vice-chancellor, while his party colleagues will run the ministries of the interior, defense and health and social security. Specifically, Herbert Kickl, will be the new interior minister: the party’s general secretary and campaign director, 49, was a speechwriter for the late party leader Jorg Haider and is a close confidant of the current leader, Hans-Christian Strache.
For one, the sweep assures that any and all benefits for migrants will be eliminated. To be sure, the opposition has expressed concern that the police and the security apparatus are now all firmly in the hands of the Freedom Party.
Separately, the new foreign minister will be Middle East expert and writer Karin Kneissl (pictured), who is not a Freedom Party member but was nominated by the party, which to some suggests that the Freedom Party now effectively runs Austria. At the request of Austria’s president, the posts of justice minister and interior minister would not be held by the same party, Mr Kurz said.
Today’s crowning success of the far-right Freedom Party, which gained 7 percentage points on the previous elections, come amid a backlash to the immigrant wave that swept Europe in 2015 in the aftermath of Angela Merkel’s now defunct “open door” policy. The party’s hardline anti-immigrant stance emerged after Austria was overwhelmed by a wave of refugees fleeing the US-stoked proxy war in Syria.
Since 2015, the Alpine country took in some 150,000 asylum seekers, which accounts for over 1 percent of its population, one of the largest shares per capita alongside Sweden. The signs of the growing popularity of the far-right was evident in December last year, when Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer’s bid to become modern Austria’s first far-right president was only narrowly defeated in a neck-and-neck contest with centrist Van der Bellen.
And so, with Austria set to form a right-wing government, institutionalized opposition to Europe’s liberal “open door” policies on migrants is no longer restricted to the EU’s eastern territories. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with their own conservative governments, remain staunchly opposed to the EU relocation scheme and refuse to take in a single refugee. Now, with Austria joining the “resistance”, the anti-migrant wave have officially broken into central Europe.
And now, we await Europe’s response: when the Freedom Party last entered a coalition in Austria in 2000, the country’s fellow EU member states froze bilateral diplomatic relations in response. While they were lifted months later, such measures are unlikely to happen again, as resurgent populist groups have been promoting anti-immigration and eurosceptic agendas across much of the EU, and the last thing any other establishment party wants is to experience a similar revolution in the top political echelons.
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Featured image of Strache and Kurz: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger