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American media has failed to under­stand what actually hap­pened in Austria, the small European nation with about 8 million inhab­i­tants.  

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.