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It’s time to put ‘Austria First’; says its new (and very young) leader

Black and blue and populist all over. That’s what Austria is tonight after 31-year-old Wunderkind Sebastian Kurz’s revamped Austrian People’s Party (OVP) won that nation’s elections. Kurz will become Chancellor because, and solely because, his total rebranding of his party to be a softer version of the anti-immigrant populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) swung enough voters to lead his party to victory.

Kurz rose to fame by arguing against Muslim immigration, in favour of closing the border to refugees from the Balkans and leading the effort that resulted in a ban on the wearing of burqas. With the OVP hemmoraging support earlier this year and the FPO leading all public opinion polls, the party turned to the only man who had credibility with voters fed up with the cozy insider consensus that has ruled Austria since it regained independence after World War II. But even they probably did not imagine what would come next.

Kurz rose to fame by arguing against Muslim immigration, in favour of closing the border to refugees from the Balkans and leading the effort that resulted in a ban on the wearing of burqas

The OVP was promptly rebranded as the “new OVP”. Its party list (Austria has a proportional representation system with parliamentary lists chosen by the party) would be labeled “Liste Kurz – Die Neue Volkspartei” (i.e. Kurz’s List – the New OVP). He even changed the OVP’s traditional colour, black, to a light blue. Since the FPO’s traditional colour has always been deep blue, the message was unmistakeable: Kurz is the safer, less harsh populist.

The FPO was furious. Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, angrily complained that Kurz had stolen his party’s issues. In today’s election, however, even that brazen pilfering was not enough to stop the FPO from gaining nearly 7% from the prior election to finish second. Since the leader of the other traditional party, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO) has said he wants to lead his party into opposition, most observers expect Kurz to lead a majority government that combines all shades of blue.

The new OVP and the FPO agree on more than limiting migration and combating Islamic influence. They also agree that taxes should be cut. The prospect of a centre-right alliance combining smaller, business-friendly economic measures with a nationalistic “Austria First” cultural policy may frighten cosmopolitan elites in Brussels, London and other capitals of influence throughout the world but it is what nearly 60% of Austria chose today.

Kurz’s audacity presages the sort of coalition that exists in most countries in the developed world. In that sense, his party’s color change has significance worldwide. The left may now see red, but the real problem is that it and the traditional centre-right have been colour blind for years.