The heads of the traditional Austrian parties, the Social Democrats and the Austrian People’s Party, could teach their cousins in the Czech Republic a thing or two about what it’s like when parties lose power and voter support, and populist movements of various colors jostle to get into parliament.
Although the results of Sunday's parliamentary elections gave a narrow majority to the old-new grand coalition, the more significant news was the gains for the Freedom Party – a traditional right-wing populist party – and the new Team Stronach, a party founded by billionaire Frank Stronach from Canada, who in 2011 and approaching his 80th birthday, decided to return home and change Austrian politics.
Interestingly, the Austrian media in its first post-election commentaries didn’t concentrate on the results of the two largest parties – which, with the exception of six years, have ruled together in a grand coalition since 1986 and have now recorded their worst result in history. Even the eccentric Stronach didn’t really attract that much attention. No, all eyes were on Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Freedom Party, which with 21.4 percent of the votes beat its last election performance by four points.
By European standards, that’s a lot. The Euroskepticism peddled by the Freedom Party has begun to attract voters in the rich countries of the euro zone. In the German parliamentary elections, the hard-core Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany party just missed getting into parliament. Along with Team Stronach and the Freedom Party, it represents the strongest “family” of political forces, attracting the votes of wealthy Europeans dissatisfied with having to pay for the poorer parts of the European Union. They have a close ally in the nationalist True Finns of Finland.
For the EU’s Central European members, that’s bad news, which they don’t have the time and maybe even the appetite to recognize and analyze. The loudest and the most rational voice springs from Poland, which alone has both the power and the means at the European level to defend the idea of solidarity and a single-speed Europe.
Czechs have abdicated (for now) a European policy amid a flood of domestic affairs and the emergence of various populist formations. The Slovaks strictly hold the German course in an attempt to remain at the core of the euro zone, whatever its fate may be. The Balts are trying to head in the same direction. And the Hungarians, in their official role as a European pariah, are just trying not to fall off a moving train.
Austria contributed 19.5 billion euros ($26.3 billion) to the euro zone rescue fund, or 6.4 percent of its gross domestic product. Austrians have the lowest unemployment rate in the EU (6.9 percent). Higher taxes and lower interest rates, however, put pressure on disposable income. Compared with their neighbors, Austrians aren’t doing badly, but their expectations are not being fulfilled – their standard of living isn’t rising in a way they were used to. The standard target has, therefore, become immigrants, who were a topic that billionaire Stronach picked up from the Freedom Party, whose head, Strache, transformed from something nasty-sounding into something almost positive: "They love native Austrians" was the campaign’s refrain. And it worked.
A two-speed Europe is thus not born in debates in Brussels, but in the elections in the richest members. When after the announcement of the election results, Michael Spindelegger, the leader of the Austrian People's Party, said the grand coalition cannot continue in the same style and with the same paralysis, it was clear that this was more about blackmailing the coalition partner Social Democrats. Purely mathematically, the People’s Party could put together a majority with the Freedom Party and Stronach. But at this point, that would be too much of a shock to the system, and Austria and Europe already have one experience behind them with right-wing populists in government. When Joerg Haider's Freedom Party got into the governing coalition in 2000, a Europe-led boycott only backfired.
But if the political and economic crisis of the European Union continues, and the Austrian grand coalition continues to be as dysfunctional as it is now, a coalition of the Freedom Party and two types of right-wing populists won’t be an exotic mathematical solution in five years but a real possibility. Only then will Austria show to its post-communist neighbors how speeds are changed in Europe.