On Sunday, the Austrian people voted Sebastian Kurz, 31, and his center-right Austrian People’s Party into power. The People’s Party, known in Austria as the OVP, won 31.6 percent of the vote. The left leaning Socialist Democrats (SPO) took second with 26.9 percent and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) took a close third with 26 percent.
Why should you care about what happens in a small nation so far away? The New York Times argues it’s a cautionary note: The far-right European nationalists are here to stay.
“Rather than a sudden lurch to the right, the victory of conservative and far-right parties in Austria’s elections Sunday was another reflection of the new normal in Europe, where anti-immigration populism and nationalism are challenging the European Union’s commitment to open borders for trade and immigration,” The Times wrote.
They were not the only ones making sweeping analyses. The Washington Post wrote, “Austria became the latest European country to take a sharp turn right on Sunday.”
Even the news outlets that chose to simply report the facts failed to describe much about Kurz’s views other than his immigration policy. The Wall Street Journal fell victim to this reductive characterization in a news story on Monday.
Even on the right, outlets such as the National Review have failed to grasp the reality of Austria’s vote.
“The populist right, though scorned by the Left as Islamophobic, gains ground in yet another European election,” wrote National Review’s John Fund on the Austrian election.
They are all wrong.
Due to a lack of context, many American and British news organizations have been too quick to use the Austrian election to support their previously established political narratives. For many, the Austrian election is simply cannon fodder. This oversimplification is harmful because it misses the real story.
Kurz criticized Austria’s massive influx of refugees and failed integration efforts, but he’s also one of the first European politicians to be against the expansion of the welfare state. He supports lower taxes, less regulation, and a more business friendly climate.
In other words, on a continent with socialists on the left and right, Kurz stands astray, duty bound to roll back government in desperate need of reduction.
“We needed a wakeup call,” said Ulli Schiller, an Austrian resident and citizen. “In the last two to three years the Social Democrats and the Green Party have been completely ignorant.”
Schiller has always voted for the Socialist Democrats – until Kurz came along.
Schiller said she voted for Kurz because of his position on the European Union, his desire to make Austria more economically competitive, and his refugee policy she didn’t believe to be extreme.
In an exit poll by the Austrian Broadcast Association, 55 percent of voters said they voted for Kurz’s party because of its policies regarding refugees and integration. That means 45 percent voted for him for other reasons.
“One of his main focuses has been economic but people don’t talk about that,” Schiller said. “In Austria, if you want to open your own business, it’s really, really hard.”
Her views are not the only I have encountered. In the Spring, I visited Vienna and spoke with an owner of a hair salon. He told me that for the first six months of the year, taxes make it impossible for him to make a profit.
In an interview last May on my Radio Free Hillsdale mini-series, “The Vienna Tapes”, Austrian philosopher and professor Eugen-Maria Schulak emphasized a similar point.
“Every year a lot of people give up on the free life in Austria,” Schulak said. “They start to live on the social care of the government because they couldn’t keep their businesses. We have so much tax and so much regulation, you couldn’t imagine.”
After the interview I asked him if he thought there was any hope for political reform for Austria. He told me probably not, but there was one new politician who was different.
“His name is Sebastian Kurz,” Schulak said.
Kurz’s policies regarding the European Union are a move towards decentralization but not in the drastic way some have speculated. Unlike what some have argued such as the Daily Express, Austria will not be “next to leave the EU.”
Kurz has explicitly stated his desire to stay in the EU, however, he has also emphasized that member states should have more sovereign control.
While his positions on deregulation and decentralization have been understated, the migrant crisis did play significant role in the election. The media got that fact right but Kurz’s unique form of addressing it was missed.
“Immigration has been a huge issue for Western Europe, ignoring it would be wrong, but Kurz is different.” Schiller said. “He doesn’t use fear as a tactic to gain votes.”
Unlike the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, FPO, and many other far right parties in Europe, Kurz has a unique ability to calmly address hot button issues.
“Kurz has managed to bring the political discussion of Islam to a foreground without sounding like a racist.” Chris Gutman, an Austrian citizen, said.
Sebastian Kurz and his party may be an unusual turn for Austria but not in the way the American media has suggested. In a country where both the right-wing and left-wing parties support big government, Kurz is a breath of fresh air.
Ben Dietderich is a sophomore studying political economy and rhetoric and public address.