Other Conservatives Should Be Wary of Imitating Kurz and May

Unlike most, conservative leaders in Austria and the United Kingdom can afford to appease reactionary voters.

Sebastian Kurz is seen leaving an Austrian People's Party meeting in Vienna, May 14
Sebastian Kurz is seen leaving an Austrian People’s Party meeting in Vienna, May 14 (ÖVP/Jakob Glaser)

Center-right parties in Western Europe are responding to competition from the nativist right in radically different ways.

Whereas Dutch prime minister and liberal party leader Mark Rutte argued against the “pessimism” of the nationalist Freedom Party in the March election and won, conservative leaders in Austria and the United Kingdom have chosen to appease reactionary voters.

Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian foreign minister, has been elected leader of the Christian democratic People’s Party because he appeals to voters who might switch to the far right.

Kurz made his name writing an Islam Law for Austria that, among other things, prohibits foreign funding of mosques.

He also took a hard line in last year’s refugee crisis, going behind Europe’s back to do a deal with neighboring Balkan countries to control the influx of people.

Other leaders were dismayed, but Austrian voters seem to approve.

A year ago, the Freedom Party was faraway the country’s most popular with around 32 percent support in the polls. Support for the ruling Social Democrats and People’s Party languished in the low twenties. Now the three are neck and neck. There is a good chance Kurz will be the next chancellor.

Island mentality

Britain’s Conservatives pursue a similar strategy. Theresa May is repudiating the metro-centric liberal conservatism of her predecessor, David Cameron. Not only has she accepted Brexit; under her leadership, the Conservative Party is wholly embracing the small-mindedness that informed the vote to leave the EU.

In their manifesto for the election in June, the Conservatives propose to cut immigration to an arbitrary “tens of thousands”, double the fee companies must pay for hiring high-skilled migrants to £2,000 per year and roll out electricity price controls Cameron once described as “nuts”.

May has also accused European elites of interfering in the British election: the sort of fiction that stirs the bloodymindedness of her compatriots.

Yet there is little doubt she will prevail. The Labour Party is making no effort to appeal beyond its hard-left base and May has all but vanquished the United Kingdom Independence Party. If the majority of its voters defect, she would win an even bigger majority for the Conservatives than Cameron did.

Provincial

I’m not sure center-right leaders in other parts of Europe would be wise to imitate Kurz and May, though.

Austria is altogether more provincial than its neighbors to the north. In the most recent presidential election, the nationalist candidate, Norbert Hofer, got 46 percent of the votes.

Unlike the Germans, Austrians have never accepted a collective responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era, which goes some way to explaining why immigrant-bashing isn’t toxic in the Alps.

(That said, it is too easy to draw a direct line from the 1930s to the modern-day Freedom Party, despite frequent observations in the English-language media that the party was founded by “former Nazis”. Many politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen in postwar Austria were. The Freedom Party started out as a broad-tent alternative to the dominant Catholic and socialist parties. It radicalized under the influence of Jörg Haider in the 1980s. )

Britain is special in its own way. Brexit means it will be excluded from closer European integration in the future, so the Conservatives can now agitate against Brussel without consequence. The irrelevance of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and the first-past-the-post voting system mean they don’t have to worry about losing centrist voters either.

Rightists elsewhere don’t have those luxuries.

Prudent Merkel

Take Germany’s Christian Democrats. Angela Merkel has taken care to protect her right flank by proposing a ban on the burqa and emphasizing security issues in state elections like North Rhine-Westphalia’s, where her conservatives recently unseated the left.

This is prudent. I argued here last year that Merkel musn’t make the same mistake as Hillary Clinton and push well-meaning conservatives over the edge by wholeheartedly embracing cosmopolitanism.

Clinton neglected working-class voters in the Midwest, expecting demographics with more liberal sensibilities — Hispanics, working women, young voters — to make up the difference. They did in raw numbers, but not in the Electoral College.

Merkel’s open-door immigration policy and defense of globalization and the EU threatened to do something similar in Germany: the nativist Alternative party was growing in the polls and Merkel’s right-wing Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, was in open revolt.

She appears to have seen off both challenges, but the chancellor cannot lurch too far to the right either lest liberals switch to the Free Democrats, cosmopolitans to the Greens and middle-of-the-road voters to the Social Democrats.

Balancing act

Rutte succeeded in this balancing act. He tightened his party’s immigration and integration policies in order to keep right-wing voters on board but also emphasized his belief in individualism and opportunity to satisfy liberals.

Republicans in France are trying to do something similar, under more difficult circumstances.

The center, under President Emmanuel Macron, and the far right, under Marine Le Pen, are both stronger there. If the Republicans ally with Macron, they risk defections to the National Front. But if they determine to keep socially conservative voters in the party, liberals could switch to Macron’s En Marche!

This is the challenge for conservatives in most multiparty democracies.

Indeed, it is the challenge for most major parties in Europe and North America: how to motivate one’s base without alienating centrist voters?

One or two exceptions, in the form of Austria and the United Kingdom, don’t change this reality.

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