VIENNA — “Don’t let the Nazis govern!”
Even as the chant rang through a crowd of several thousand people gathered in the streets this week, the nation’s president made official a development unthinkable just a few years ago: An unapologetically far-right party once again is holding the reins of government in Austria.
Despite the protests, President Alexander Van der Bellen swore in a coalition government headed by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (OVP) in alliance with the far-right Freedom Party, (FPO) — a political party whose antecedents date back to former Nazis after World War II.
With a seat at the table again after almost two decades afloat in political exile, the FPO plans to take advantage of warmer waters in the European Union for right-wing governments in order to push for nationalist and conservative policies. In a sign of the changing times, an earlier coalition government that included the Freedom Party in 1999 led to a crisis with the European Union and unprecedented sanctions against Vienna.
But after the Brexit vote in Britain, President Trump’s election in the U.S., a popular backlash against unchecked immigration from the Middle East and other global hot spots, and the growing electoral success of right-wing populist parties across the Continent, the international reception this time to the 31-year-old Mr. Kurz’s ascension to the top job has been totally different.
“There is a palpable spirit of optimism,” said FPO lawmaker Kurt Liechtenstein. “The abortive developments of the last decade, and the previous government’s conscious policy of ignoring the worries and fears of the people, simply had to propel us to power. It was just a question of time.”
Those popular fears were especially precipitated by the migrant crisis that engulfed Europe in 2015. Austria took in an unprecedented number of refugees seeking asylum from the Middle East and elsewhere.
The FPO seized the opportunity to criticize how the government handled the situation, only adding fodder to the public’s fervent disillusionment with the more centrist ruling coalition of the OVP and the Social Democrats — a marriage of ideological convenience that had dominated Austrian politics since World War II.
That coalition frayed last year after those parties’ respective candidates failed to survive the first round of elections for the largely ceremonial post of president, a race eventually won by Mr. Van der Bellen of Austria’s Green Party. A string of internal disputes within the government ensued, triggering a snap election in October that put the OVP in first place and the FPO in third.
Even in such a contentious political environment, Mr. Van der Bellen, who narrowly defeated an FPO candidate in the nation’s presidential election, toed a diplomatic line after swearing in the conservative government.
“Many are critical of the new government or even oppose it — I understand that,” he said after the ceremony. “Differing opinions are a hallmark of democracy.”
Mr. Kurz, a former foreign minister who is the world’s youngest head of government, has confronted the doubters head-on since he was sworn into office. He traveled immediately to Brussels on his first foreign trip to underscore his commitment to the European Union.
Meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk and other EU leaders, Mr. Kurz said on Twitter that he had “reaffirmed the Austrian government’s pro-European position and its full commitment to further developing the EU.”
The FPO last entered government 17 years ago under the leadership of Joerg Haider, a polarizing firebrand leader famed for incendiary comments such as his praise of Nazi labor practices in Austria during World War II.
Back then, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Vienna in protest of the right-wing government, forcing the new Cabinet to travel through an underground tunnel to Vienna’s Hofburg palace for the inauguration in order to avoid confrontations with demonstrators.
Austrians weren’t the only ones who bucked the newly inaugurated conservative government: Several EU states froze diplomatic relations with Austria to protest the FPO’s ascension to power.
This time around, however, no such action will be taken, said political analyst Stefan Sengl. EU countries learned the hard way that strong-arming right-wing governments can be counterproductive.
“The EU strategy to condemn Austria in 2000 flopped,” he said. “Sanctions only increased public support for the OVP-FPO coalition.”
Especially now, at a time when the European Union is divided internally between socially conservative, nationalist governments in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and Western European powers in Germany and France, the EU would be smart to avoid isolating Austria, Mr. Sengl said.
The policy proposals of Austria’s new government already suggest that the country is drifting the way of the bloc’s more populist members.
The government plans to enforce stricter rules for migrants, including reducing state-funded cash benefits. Echoing the stances of other populists across the Continent, FPO party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has said that Islam “has no place in Europe.”
Although Austria’s government officially boasts a pro-EU stance, the FPO has been known to tout euroskeptic views: Last year, FPO presidential candidate Norbert Hofer called for Austria to follow the U.K. in holding a referendum on whether Austria should stay in the bloc.
“If the answer to Brexit would be to make a centralized European Union, where the national parliaments are disempowered and where the union is governed like a state … we would have to hold a referendum in Austria,” he said.
Many more liberal Austrians fear once-extreme views have been given more legitimacy now that the FPO is back in government.
“Sebastian Kurz made the conservative right socially acceptable again,” said Christopher Herndler, who works in multimedia in Vienna and calls himself a lifelong opponent of the FPO. “Everything happened at the right time for the FPO. Austrians are getting increasingly disillusioned with politics. We will wake up in 10 years to see what electing the FPO has really cost us.”
Some — even on the left — say bringing far-right powers into the government can be the best way to neutralize their appeal. The FPO suffered politically from its last stint in power, unable to satisfy the firebrands in its own ranks while striking the deals with more moderate allies to stay in the coalition.
“What we are witnessing looks more like a domestication than an empowerment of the FPO, and this is good news,” Federico Ottavio Reho is a research officer at the Brussels-based Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, a Brussels-based think tank, wrote in an analysis published Thursday for EUObserver.com.
The FPO has received several key posts in the government, including the interior and defense ministries. It was also given the right to choose the foreign minister, who will not be an FPO member but is expected to promote the party’s agenda. Mr. Liechtenstein, the FPO lawmaker, said the party will use its influence to endorse a “direct-democracy approach” to governance, rejecting what they say are the globalist, elitist, anti-democratic attitudes from Brussels.
“For us, it’s important that no one should be able to dictate to our citizens what they have to do — not Brussels and not Vienna,” he said.
Such populist stances may prove difficult to reconcile with the coalition’s pledge to maintain Austria’s EU credentials. But Mr. Liechtenstein contends that someone has to stand up to European elites — and the FPO is in the best position to do so.
“The EU is increasingly becoming a central state like the former USSR,” he said. “This can only be remedied by an opposing force.”