Sebastian Kurz’ success may not be a template for other conservative party leaders.
The young Christian democrat defeated the far right in Austria this weekend by moving his People’s Party to the right on identity issues and immigration.
But Austria is more right-wing than most countries in Europe and its Freedom Party still achieved an almost historic result on Sunday.
Party of Kurz
Spooked by polls that put the Freedom Party in first place, as well as the nationalists’ near-victory in the presidential election last year, the center-right turned to Kurz for leadership.
Foreign minister since 2013, Kurz made his name writing an Islam Law for Austria that, among other things, prohibited the foreign funding of mosques.
He also introduced a burqa ban and prohibited the sale of unofficial versions of the Quran.
He supports for a full headscarf ban for civil servants and took a hard line in the European refugee crisis, going behind other countries’ back to do a deal with Balkan leaders to control the influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East.
Kurz’ program convinced some reactionary voters to switch (back) to the mainstream right, but the Freedom Party still got 26.5 percent of the votes, close to its 1999 record of 26.9 percent.
Given the defeat of the center-left, the far right will almost certainly be part of the next coalition government. So how much of a victory is this for Kurz really?
Most other conservative party leaders don’t have the Austrian’s luxury of being able to tack to the right without losing support in the center.
When the Republicans in France nominated the socially conservative François Fillon for the presidency in order to compete with the National Front, they lost center-right voters to Emmanuel Macron.
The Netherlands’ Mark Rutte tightened his party’s immigration and integration policies in order to stem defections to the far right, but his simultaneous paeans to individualism and opportunity did not stop some liberal voters switching to the centrist Democrats.
Angela Merkel had the opposite problem: her liberal immigration policy and outspoken Europeanism appealed to the center-left but caused reactionary voters to flee to the Free Democrats and far-right Alternative.
This is the challenge for most parties: how to motivate their base without alienating swing voters. Kurz doesn’t have the answer to that question.