Austrian Conservatives, Greens in coalition talks: Is the far-right experiment over?

Published 19.11.2019 01:17
Head of the People’s Party (ÖVP) Sebastian Kurz and Green Party leader Werner Kogler meet for their first coalition talks to form a new government in Vienna, Austria, Nov. 15, 2019.
Head of the People’s Party (ÖVP) Sebastian Kurz and Green Party leader Werner Kogler meet for their first coalition talks to form a new government in Vienna, Austria, Nov. 15, 2019.

Long gone are the days of when "talking green" meant referring to alternative, anti-establishment agendas. Ever since Joschka Fischer took over the German Foreign Ministry the picture has changed dramatically and not just over there. As a consequence, those initially ecologically motivated political movements that over time had sprung up almost everywhere in Europe eventually had to come to terms with a much less idealistic version of reality: want to have green power, get ready to govern.

And that "get ready" to govern entails the necessity to make considerable compromises on the issues front. This brings us to Austria: this week on Monday it was announced by Sebastian Kurz's conservative party, the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) that they would invite the Greens under their chairman Werner Kogler to officially accept the invitation for coalition talks in all likelihood starting as soon as Tuesday. Already on Sunday, the Greens' extended party board had voted in favor of kicking-off negotiations should such an offer come their way. Open-ended for sure and without a guarantee that they will yield any tangible results but nevertheless a potential government forming milestone that could have far-reaching impacts on what the country will look like in the future. Above all else, it seems as if the flirting with far-right tendencies – at least on a national level – has come to an abrupt end. Or has it?

In opposition - for now

Austria's far-right Freedom Party and chairman its Norbert Hofer did not wait long before declaring that a disastrous outcome at the ballot box during the last national elections in which his party suffered a negative swing of almost 10% away from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) could only lead to one conclusion: join the ranks of the opposition instead of pushing for a remake of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. With Kurz's ÖVP clearly in the driving seat having won 71 seats in the 183-seat parliament, or Nationalrat, mathematically speaking just that would have been possible when adding Hofer's 31 seats.

However, as Hofer did not change his mind up until today Kurz was nevertheless left with quite a number of intriguing options: enter a German-style grand coalition with the Socialists (as in the past), try a three-party government with both the Greens and the Liberals (read as neolibrals), risk a minority government with shifting support from other parties on a case by case basis, or make the surprise move and ask the Greens to come forward.

Yesterday Hofer did not mince his words when declaring Kurz's decision to "surrender Austria to the Greens" as wrong, by which he indirectly implied that after a successful center-right government the ÖVP and the nation would now enter dangerous waters.

In this context it is important to note that it appears as if a majority among ÖVP voters and decision-makers were not really fond of a renewed ÖVP-FPÖ cooperation anyways as one thing was obvious: Neither Kurz nor his party (not even mentioning the FPÖ itself) could ever survive another Ibiza scandal or anything of that nature; hence playing it safe became the order of the day in Vienna.

Staying in the picture of playing safe one feels inclined to wonder whether or not outright dismissing a grand coalition will actually lead to a stable, full-term government but there is one overarching factor inherent in all of this one cannot overlook: Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen himself originally hailed from the Green Party hence now forming a government in which the Greens take over ever more responsibility should no longer be discarded as a utopian vision.

Climate change, migration

Although climate change had been the key topic during the Green's election campaign it is fair to say it has emerged as a multi-issue political force. Education and integration are only two of those subjects. Nevertheless, according to Kurz there are three hot picks which will dominate the coalition negotiations: On the one hand the very outspoken demands from the side of the Greens regarding how better to protect the environment including a rethinking of private versus public modes of transport, respectively. On the other hand there are the two tricky matters of migration and the economy which according to Kurz are ideally non-negotiable. Whereas climate change plus environment paired with managing a sustainable economy are somehow intertwined and could perhaps be formulated into a sort of compromise coalition pact the debate about migration seems to be much more complicated with a view on how to arrive at mutually tolerated conclusions.

Because this is the one policymaking aspect Austria, not unlike most other European nations, must urgently address: how to stem the ill-fated tide of ever-rising populism often leading to straightforward nationalism which in turn has drastic consequences for how a modern society is shaped? Is it an inward-looking, isolated nation-state afraid of allowing "the other" to fully participate in all walks of life and in all parts of society? Or is it a socially inclusive state where exactly the latter point is taken care of and integration promoted as part and parcel of a multicultural way of living together instead of simply living side by side?

This then leads us to the hotly debated topic of migration regardless of whether illegal or not. Should the country become a humanitarian role model and open its borders to whoever is in dire need to find shelter from war and conflict? Or should it pull up the draw bridges and close its borders?

Still on the same subject, could the Greens and the ÖVP ever hammer out a certain catalog of jointly agreed upon items as for example Kurz would probably argue migration must be managed (in other words capped) whereas Kogler might demand an open border policy?

Shelving a number of large infrastructure projects (not all of them of course) or making certain that they become more ecologically watertight seems, by comparison, an easy task to talk about during the coalition negotiations. Agreeing that more must be invested in education and life-long learning – and provided the necessary funds are available – equally should not pose any risk for a smooth running of talks.

But without raising taxes how to allocate a budget for those reforms? So we have already found two questions which will most definitely make for long hours and late night meetings: taxation and migration.

Could the FPÖ change tactics?

It will be a tough test of and for Sebastian Kurz's true statesmanship: should for whatever reason talks between the Greens and ÖVP collapse, not to give in to a theoretically still possible renewed offer from the FPÖ to try it again. Even a remake of the under normal circumstances not truly loved grand coalition would at least temporarily bring more stability and social inclusion than a renewed center plus far-right experiment where a further polarization of and in society would be inevitable.

Same as the Austrian voters did in quite a remarkable fashion it is similarly in Kurz's hand to do the right thing and show the far-right the red card. It would send positive signals all over Europe and perhaps ring in the otherwise as unstoppable declared ascent of the (far-)right with Spain and the Vox party as case in point.

Neutral observers shall hope for that both the Greens and the ÖVP will be acting with wisdom and foresight and as well in the clear knowledge of their historic responsibility.

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