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The far right takes office in Austria

Sebastian Kurz (left), leader of the People’s Party, and Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party, announce that they will form a coalition government in Vienna, Austria

Sebastian Kurz (left), leader of the People’s Party, and Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party, announce that they will form a coalition government in Vienna, Austria

On 15th December, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) entered government as part of a coalition with the centre right People’s Party, having gained 26 percent of the vote in October elections. “We should be concerned about the new Austrian government,” says Harvard scholar and author Yascha Mounk. “The FPÖ is a far-right populist party, which has adopted very extreme rhetoric on immigrants.” Mounk’s new book The People vs Democracy argues that liberal democracy faces an existential crisis due to the success of authoritarian populists in countries including India, Poland and Turkey. Austria’s new government marks a new chapter in this process: the country has become the only western European state with the far right in power.

The success of the FPÖ, whose candidate Norbert Hofer narrowly lost presidential elections in 2016, was not unexpected. What did surprise and alarm Mounk, however, were the actions of 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, the leader of the People’s Party and the new chancellor. “The main centre-right party was essentially taken over by a 31-year-old who quite consciously presented himself as the acceptable face of soft populism,” he says. Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister since 2013, moved his party so sharply to the right during the election campaign that FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache accused him of stealing the party’s policies.

Mounk points out that under the coalition agreement the FPÖ now controls the foreign, interior and defence ministries, which “gives them an enormous amount of leeway in aligning themselves with far-right populist governments in eastern Europe and beyond, and informing

the attitudes of the next generation.” It has been reported that Strache, now the country’s vice-chancellor, was involved with neo-Nazi movements in his youth, although he has said as party leader that anti-Semitism is a crime and in October he suspended an FPÖ official who allegedly gave a Nazi salute. Strache has called for zero immigration into Austria and a ban on all ‘Muslim symbols’, stating that Islam poses an existential threat to Europe.

Mounk believes things in Austria could go one of two ways. “My optimistic scenario is that the populists are tamed and the government implements policies which I may disagree with but which are clearly within the democratic ambit,” says Mounk. “Alternatively the populists may drive the agenda of government, radicalise its policy stance, introduce laws that are deeply discriminatory and perhaps undermine independent institutions, as we’ve seen happen dizzyingly quickly in Poland [where the ruling populist Law and Justice party has effectively politicised the judiciary] and Hungary, which is rapidly on the way to ceasing to be
a democratic state.”

A further concern of Mounk’s is that in December 2016 the FPÖ signed a cooperation pact with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, signalling the Kremlin’s continued ability to establish political influence in democratic countries. “What’s remarkable about Russia is that it is allies with the far left in some countries and the far right in others,” says Mounk. “In some countries it is allied with both at the same time. Russia doesn’t have ideological preferences, it simply does what it can to sow discord and undermine democracy. It’s been astoundingly effective at doing that in recent times.”

“The Austrian narrative was that it was ‘the Nazis’ first victim’, despite large parts of the population having welcomed the annexation”

The election results in France and the Netherlands in 2017, which saw Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders defeated, assuaged the fears of some that a ‘populist wave’, triggered by the shock Brexit vote and intensified by Donald Trump’s unlikely victory, would rapidly submerge much of Europe. “The idea that the Dutch and French elections somehow indicated the end of the ‘populist wave’ was naive,” argues Mounk. “After Brexit and Trump some people fell into the assumption that populists would now win every election, but there was no reason to think that would be the case.”

Mounk points to a study he co-authored for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. “The study shows that the vote share of European populist parties has gone from eight percent in 2000 to around 25 percent today, which means that we should expect them to lose most elections while making significant gains. This happened in France, where Le Pen lost but got twice as many votes as her father [Jean-Marie in 2002]. The Austrian election doesn’t indicate a dramatic surge in populism but a continuation of a very worrying long-term trend.” Some might argue that Austria is a special case since the FPÖ has been in government once before. In 1999, long before the refugee and financial crises of recent years, it won over a quarter of the vote under the leadership of Jörg Haider.

Mounk looks to the past for clues for this longer populist trend, saying that while Germany “did some serious reckoning with its own history” after the second world war, the Austrian narrative was that the annexation of the country in 1938 was a German act of aggression and that it was “the Nazis’ first victim”, despite large parts of the population having welcomed the annexation.

Mounk’s book proposes several remedies for saving liberal democracy, a theme which also underpins his fortnightly podcast, The Good Fight, in which he discusses strategies for defeating populism with thinkers from across the political spectrum. His core argument is that politicians must make reforms in three key areas: they must unite citizens around a tolerant and inclusive form of nationalism, they must find bold solutions to economic problems which tackle stagnating living standards and give ordinary people hope about the future, and they must renew a commitment to civics education, explaining to citizens the benefits of living in a liberal democracy and gradually reducing the supply of extremist ideas that spread on social media.

“I am optimistic that there are lots of things we can do to stem the tide of populism,” Mounk says. “But I don’t know if they will be enough. It is possible that we are seeing the beginning of an end of a historical phase in which liberal democracy was predominant and that those of us fighting for its survival are tilting at windmills. But I’m determined not to go down without that fight.

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