Austria’s Right-turn: Why 31-year-old anti-immigrant whizkid matters

austria-presidentMarking a worrisome ascent of alt-right forces in swathes of Europe, the Austrian elections have paved the way for a resounding victory for a centre-right party, bringing populism back on the centrestage in the continent.

The verdict in the October 15 elections has put 31-year-old leader of the conservative centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz on course to become the country’s next chancellor and the youngest world leader. Mr. Kurz, who harnessed the anti-immigrant wave to lead his party to victory capturing almost 31 per cent of votes, is expected to form a coalition government with the right wing populist Freedom Party (FPOe) that has gained 27 per cent of votes campaigning aggressively on “Austrians First” plank.

The campaign leading up to the election last week has been one of the most racially charged the country has seen in years with implications that are certain to echo in other parts of Europe. In a clear contrast to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pro-immigrant stance, Mr. Kurz capitalised on people’s fears around the influx of thousands of immigrants into Austria since 2015 and the strain it placed on the country’s economy. Austria has received over 90,000 refugees in the last two years, making it one of the major concerns in the country.

Time for Something New?

After he took over the reins of the People’s Party in May this year, the baby-faced Mr. Kurz, who is fondly called Wunderwuzzi (whiz kid) by the Austrians, revamped the Party into a movement, giving it a new-age, media-savvy makeover and a catchy “Time for something new” slogan. Blending in his personal charisma with his political manoeuvres in a societal landscape that was raring for change, Mr. Kurz launched a blitzkrieg campaign tapping into the surging populist sentiments.

Presenting himself as the voice of the new generation, Mr. Kurz has advocated lowering of taxes in a major overhaul of the economy besides wanting less interference from the European Union in the internal affairs of Austria. A stance which goes against France’s young President Emmanuel Macron’s outlook towards the EU, which is still grappling with Brexit.

While the Netherlands and French elections were hailed as signals against the rise of populism and nationalism in Europe, the mandate to the far right German party – Alternative for Germany (AfD)- which became the third biggest party in Bundestag last month and the latest Austrian shift towards the right has set the stage for a tidal change in the European politics in the coming years.


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