An anti-immigration, Euroskeptical party made significant gains in Austria’s national elections on Sunday. Early results show that the Freedom Party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, picked up about 26 percent of the vote, possibly earning it a spot in the country’s next governing coalition. Its ascension is a sign that the nationalist wave sweeping Europe over the last few years may not yet have crested.
Topping the vote in Austria was the center-right People party, headed by the slick 31-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who will likely now become the youngest leader in Europe. He fended off the challenge to his right by adopting many of the Freedom Party’s tough platforms on immigration, like further restricting the number of people allowed into the country and cutting off the country’s generous welfare benefits to refugees. He also overhauled his stolid party with an election-branded name (the New People’s Party) and more dynamic image.
The center-left Social Democrats were projected to come in second with about 27 percent of the vote — a disappointing result that mirrored the struggles of similar liberal-leaning parties across Europe. Kurz may yet choose to form an alliance with them, but the Freedom Party is guaranteed to have enormous influence on his decisions going forward.
It was the best result for the Freedom Party party since 2000, when it was headed by the charismatic Jorg Haider, who was known to express sympathy for Nazis. (The party was founded by former Nazis in the 1950s; Austria, unlike Germany, has never done much soul-searching about its past.) When the center-right government at the time invited Haider to join a governing coalition, which ended up lasting six years, the move sparked outrage and street protests. But with the steady rise of right-wing populists around the continent, a similar alliance is expected to create little uproar this time around. The party has attempted to scrub the anti-Semitism from its reputation, positioning itself as pro-Israel and anti-Muslim.
Austria is one of the world’s richest countries, but its economy has been sluggish in recent years. And, amid the fallout from the Syrian Civil War, it became a way station for refugees. About 90,000 have arrived in the country of 8.4 million since 2015, sparking a right-wing backlash similar to the one seen in Germany, which, as a country, has led the way in welcoming immigrants. Last year, Austria came very close to electing a Freedom Party candidate to the presidency, a largely ceremonial position. (That result was annulled because of voting irregularities, and the candidate, Norbert Hofer, lost more resoundingly in a later election.)
In the last several years, nationalist candidates and parties from Hungary to France have seized on anti-Islam sentiment, the specter of immigration, and skepticism of the European Union to make a roaring comeback in Europe. But after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU and President Trump was elected, the tide seemed to have turned against the populists, with voters decisively rejecting right-wingers in the Netherlands and France.
But last month, Alternative for Germany, the country’s anti-immigration party, made major electoral gains, signifying that the continent’s revanchist forces were still a force to be reckoned with. Sunday’s results only confirmed that reality.