Austrians and Czechs Move Europe Right

This month, Austria and the Czech Republic held general elections. The results in both countries represent the latest step in right-wing populism’s march through Europe. On October 15, Austrians voted for Sebastian Kurz, a 31-year-old ex-foreign minister and head of the center-right OVP (Austrian People’s Party), to be their next chancellor. After his appointment to the OVP’s top spot last May, Kurz revitalized his stagnant and floundering party, bringing it from a dismal 20 percent support to 31.5 percent in the election. Discussion of migration dominated the campaign. Kurz capitalized on popular concerns about this issue, promising to close the Mediterranean Route, a major path African migrants take to reach Europe, and arguing that “on a European level we need to fight hard to put a stop to immigration.” Interestingly, the OVP’s embrace of nationalism did not prevent the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) from gaining ground; the FPO also climbed 5% to 26%, finishing just behind the second-place Social Democrats.

The outcome in the Czech Republic the following week may have been even better for populist nationalism. There the big winner was Andrej Babis, the nation’s second richest man and the founder of his party, ANO. ANO, which (in lower-case letters) means “yes” in Czech and stands for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens,” has grown rapidly in its five-year existence. It has now won 30 percent of the vote and 78 of the 200 seats in parliament, almost as much as the next three largest parties combined (the center-right ODS, the far-right SPD, and the libertarian Pirate Party). Babis is economically conservative, declaring that as prime minister he will “run the country like a business.” He also shares Kurz’s anti-immigration stance, specifically his hostility to the migrant quotas placed on Central and Eastern European nations by the European Union. Much of the controversy Babis drew, though, was brought on not by his policy stances but instead because he has been accused of corrupt management of his personal businesses. Clearly, many Czechs were willing to overlook these claims, but they do raise worrying questions about the likelihood of fair governance under the ANO.

Neither Kurz nor Babis want to leave the EU, and both openly describe themselves as “pro-European” in this sense. However, they are critical of further integration of their countries into the transnational authority in Brussels and strongly oppose the EU’s attitude toward migration. Additionally, genuine Euroskeptics (opponents or strong critics of EU integration) in other parties did well in the recent Austrian and Czech elections, and they may pressure the OVP and ANO to take a harsher stance toward Brussels. While the recent elections do not spell the disintegration of the European Union, they do reinforce the need for liberals and “Europhiles” to reconsider their approach to containing the rising nationalist wave.