A Freedom Party supporter holds a picture of leader Heinz-Christian Strache © EPA
This summer, Europe’s mainstream leaders had hoped the election of centrist president Emmanuel Macron in France marked the end of the continent’s populist upsurge. But Sunday’s elections in Austria show that, for the traditional postwar parties, the threat from the right is far from vanquished.
Christian Kern, the country’s defeated Social Democratic chancellor, summed up the resurgence on Sunday evening. Austria, he said, had experienced a “massive slide to the right” after the far-right Freedom party secured its best result in two decades.
The contest in Austria, which often serves as a political bellwether in Europe, was a reminder of how, two years on from the continent’s migration crisis, populist forces are still able to harness widespread anger over the issue to make electoral gains and influence national politics.
Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s 31-year-old foreign minister, topped Sunday’s poll but only after overhauling his centre-right People’s party, which has been in government for the past 30 years, and embracing many of the hardline immigration policies of the Freedom party.
In the event, the Freedom party still took 26 per cent of the vote, its best result since 1999, when it was headed by the charismatic Jörg Haider.
The Freedom party’s gains come just three weeks after its German counterpart, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, scored an unprecedented 13 per cent in Bundestag elections, scooping up 92 seats in the 709-seat parliament. It was the best performance by a far-right party in Germany since the second world war.
That election saw Angela Merkel win a fourth term as chancellor but the victory was Pyrrhic: her conservative bloc scored their worst result since 1949 and will now have to cobble together an three-way coalition with the liberal FDP and Greens, two parties divided by deep ideological differences.
The woman who for many is Europe’s most powerful leader emerged from the election weakened politically. That could undermine her ability to take the critical leadership role she has assumed in previous EU crises.
It is all a far cry from the summer, when the defeat of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections suggested that the appeal of Europe’s populists had peaked.
That came after an election in the Netherlands in March when prime minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right VVD saw off a challenge from Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom party. In Brussels, EU leaders argued the populist tide exemplified by Donald Trump’s victory in the US and the UK’s Brexit vote finally had turned.
“For Europe, this is a positive signal, a signal of hope,” Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said after Mr Macron’s victory in France.
European politicians had panicked after the Brexit and US votes, said Heather Grabbe, an expert on populism at the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, but the Macron victory led many to believe the challenge from the far right had been overcome.
“The swing this year has gone too far towards complacency . . . the structural factors that led to the rise of populism are still there — especially the many voters who don’t feel represented by the big-tent parties of centre right and left,” said Ms Grabbe.
The EU now faces political turbulence from multiple directions, with the Catalan independence crisis being just the latest sign of rising nationalism.
It remains deeply split over how to deal with the millions of refugees who have come to the continent since 2015, with the rightwing governments in Poland and Hungary continuing to defy attempts by Brussels to reallocate migrants among the member states and thus ease the pressure on Greece and Italy.
Brexit also continues to cast a pall, especially after the latest round of talks between British and EU negotiators ended in deadlock.
Germany, meanwhile, is still weighing Mr Macron’s speech in September setting out proposals for a deep reform of the bloc.
In Austria, Mr Kurz is expected to move quickly to reassure allies of his pro-European credentials. He has set a “pro-Europe” government programme as a condition for coalition talks.
While the Freedom party is aligned with the governments of Poland and Hungary, Mr Kurz said during the election campaign that he would reassert Austria’s traditional role as a “bridge” between west and east Europe and try to defuse conflicts.
Nevertheless, as chancellor, Mr Kurz will still press for EU institutional reforms. He wants speedier decision-making and rejects many of Mr Macron’s integrationist ideas, arguing for a return of powers to national governments.
Amid the more sombre mood, this week’s EU summit, which many believed would show that the bloc had come back from the brink and was ready to look with optimism into the future, will be a lot less triumphant than had been hoped.