Chancellor Kurz deserves credit for trying to work with the populist FPÖ. But he's also right to end the relationship in the wake of the damning scandal
BERLIN — "Enough is enough!" It was with those words — full of anger, bitterness and distance — that Austria's chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, severed the alliance between his conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ). This is the (provisional) end of political project.
The coalition was an interesting experiment for which Kurz deserves credit. It was an attempt to break new ground in an encrusted political system with a debilitated permanent coalition of conservatives and social democrats (SPÖ). Kurz tried to tame the right-wing populists, who threatened to become the strongest party in Austria. He wanted to integrate them into a politics of reforms, and the result was a government that accomplished more in 516 days than the various Merkel coalitions did over many years.
The experiment is now over. The trigger? A controversial video that will continue, in the coming days and weeks, to be debated and picked apart but that exposed Heinz Christian Strache — the "vice-chancellor" and one of the highest representatives of the Republic of Austria — as a despiser of democracy.
The video clarifies what a number of incidents suggested: that the FPÖ is not fit to govern.
For Strache himself — whom Chancellor Kurz initially underestimated, because he thought he was a loyal dog you only have to feed now and then and give a little leash — the content of the so-called "Ibiza video" is just a "drunken story." In reality, it amounts to disrespect for one's own country. It's an attack against Austria's democratic institutions. And it's dangerous.
The video clarifies what a number of recent incidents already suggested: that the FPÖ is not fit to govern. At best, it is in substance a semi-democratic party. And Strache is not alone. Behind him are figures like Herbert Kickl, the now fired interior minister who is in many ways the brain of the FPÖ. Kickl is a highly intelligent arsonist in the guise of a garden gnome, a former federal interior minister with sympathy for the far-right "Identitarians," which firmly believe, according to their own statements, that the law follows politics and not vice versa. European intelligence services even see Kickl as a security risk.
The infamous "Ibiza video" — Source: Welt.de
Over the weekend, Chancellor Kurz seriously considered whether he should continue with the FPÖ at his side. Thankfully he decided not to. He also issued a remarkable and significant statement: He doesn't have the impression, he said, that the FPÖ has the will to change the party.
This sentence commits Kurz not to form a new coalition with the Freedom Party after the new elections planned for this autumn. The chancellor should exclude that possibility from the start and say so publicly in the election campaign.
The new public faces of the FPÖ are expected to be Norbert Hofer, the former minister of transport, and Manfred Haimbuchner, the deputy prime minister (governor) of Upper Austria — two relatively respectable gentlemen. But Kurz should be careful, after the new elections, not to empower them by sending the message that the FPÖ has somehow been purified.
For the smaller parties in Austria, such as the Greens and the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS), the new developments should be an incentive. The same for the Social Democrats. They all unexpectedly got the chance to soon be part of a governing coalition. They should make attractive offers on how Austria can be reformed. More market, more opportunities, more prosperity — that's the goal. If that succeeds, the country's right-wing populists would gradually dry up. All of this can really happen. Indeed, the chances of modernization in Austria are far better than in Germany.
In addition, Kurz is an incredible political talent with clear visions and a strong instinct. But he must not stand in his own way now. He needs to stop underestimating SPÖ boss Joy Pamela Rendi-Wagner. He should acknowledge that the Social Democrats in Austria are undergoing a process of renewal that creates opportunities. And Kurz should find his way back to what made him stand out in his role as foreign minister: approachability, a certain humility and a little more lightness.
In the end, it's all about making politics and business so successful that there's no room for exclusion
One should not overrate the (provisional) end of the "turquoise-blue" coalition experiment for Europe. It was a sui generis project. It does not allow any conclusions about the feasibility of cooperation between established and right-wing populist parties in the European Union. Every country has to find its own way. In the end, it's all about making politics and business so successful that there's no room for exclusion, nationalism and bigotry. This is currently not the case in most EU countries. Increasing budget constraints also reduce the space for maneuvering.
Europe is in a precarious position. Yes, but the way out is open.