2021-10-11 00:22:26 Austrian Political Scandal Leaves Europe’s Conservatives in Need of New Path

Austrian Political Scandal Leaves Europe’s Conservatives in Need of New Path

BERLIN — When Sebastian Kurz became Austria’s chancellor for the first time, the entire continent sat up and took notice. He had turned around the fortunes of his ailing conservative party and almost overnight become a role model for struggling center-right leaders elsewhere on the Continent, despite being only 31 years old.

Mr. Kurz was forced to resign four years later amid a criminal investigation into allegations that he used public funds to manipulate opinion polls and paid off a tabloid newspaper for favorable coverage.

His downfall is unique to Austria, but it has the potential to reverberate throughout Europe.

It comes at a time when Europe’s political landscape appears to be becoming increasingly fragmented, with once-dominant traditional parties of the center-left and center-right losing ground to a slew of new political actors, not least on the extremes.

Mr. Kurz, who is young and media-savvy, presented himself as someone who knew how to keep a capacious center afloat in the midst of disruption. He adopted an ascendant far-anti-immigrant right’s rhetoric and refashioned his traditionally staid People’s Party into a political movement that drew hundreds of thousands of new supporters.

In October 2017, the German tabloid Bild lamented, “Why don’t we have someone like that?”

But, according to Thomas Hofer, a longtime observer of European politics and an independent political consultant in Vienna, the recent allegations against him and a trove of evidence that has already been released suggest that the very communication strategy that won him conservative votes at home and admiration in conservative circles abroad was at best “deeply immoral” and at worst illegal.

“What we’re seeing in Austria is the collapse of a new narrative for European conservative parties,” Mr. Hofer explained. “On a global scale, the Kurz model was closely scrutinized by others as a possible response to far-right populists.”

Across Europe, ailing traditional center-right parties have struggled to reinvent themselves, flirting with the temptation to shift further to the right at times.

In neighboring Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who have ruled the country for 52 of the last 72 years — including the last 16 — were humiliated in last month’s election. It was their worst-ever election result.

In France, where conservatives have won five of the eight presidential elections since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the traditional center-right has not won any national elections since 2007.

In Italy, Christian Democrats co-ruled for nearly half a century after WWII, but the political right has become increasingly radicalized and fragmented over the last two decades.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom is one of the few successful center-right leaders left in Western Europe, and he, like Mr. Kurz, has co-opted not only populists’ nationalist anti-immigrant rhetoric, but also their aggressively symbiotic relationship with tabloids.

According to some analysts, recent events in Austria indicate that Mr. Kurz’s political strategy to resurrect centrist conservatism is not a viable long-term strategy.

“Kurz is someone who has taken a traditional center-right party, dragged it into populist mode, and is now in big trouble,” said Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford University professor of European history.

According to Mr. Garton Ash, one lesson is that the decline of traditional catch-all parties on both the right and left is structural — and likely irreversible.

“The big parties of the center-right and center-left that dominated Western Europe after 1945 are not what they were and are unlikely to be what they were again,” he said.

Elections across Europe have revealed a more fragmented society, one that increasingly defies traditional political categorization.

For much of the postwar period, European countries had a large center-left and a large center-right party. The center-left parties championed a working-class organized in powerful labor unions, whereas the center-right parties attracted a diverse range of middle- and upper-class voters, ranging from conservative churchgoers to free-market business owners. It was not uncommon for one camp to receive 40% of the vote.

That status was lost by Social Democratic parties a long time ago. With union membership declining and parts of the traditional working-class constituency abandoning the center-left, the center-share left’s of the vote has been declining since the early 2000s.

If the crisis of social democracy has been a recurring theme over the last decade, the crisis of conservatism is now in full bloom. Even though the old conservative parties have shrunk, many of their policies remain dominant in Europe, according to analysts.

“If you look at Germany, France, or Italy, it’s not classic center-right conservatives who won elections or are in power, but the policies that are in place are traditionally center-right,” said Dominique Mosi, a political scientist and senior adviser at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron demolished the French party system by winning elections with his En Marche movement, but the pro-European market liberal, once considered center-left, has recently shifted sharply to the right.

Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, has no party affiliation but is regarded as a centrist because he is a former president of the European Central Bank.

Even in Germany, where a Social Democrat narrowly won the recent election, the party’s candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, previously served as Ms. Merkel’s finance minister and is therefore more closely associated with her outgoing government than with his own party.

“The clear-cut left-right divide that dominated European politics has blurred and no longer truly applies,” Mr. Mosi said. “The extreme right is far more extreme than the extreme left.” The center-right is moving even further to the center, while the traditional left has either completely imploded, as in France, or is fighting for survival alongside the Greens. As a result, the political landscape is much more fragmented than it used to be.”

That hasn’t stopped some of the country’s most powerful politicians from looking for ways to resurrect the past — and looking to Mr. Kurz as a model.

“You can see in Austria that Sebastian Kurz manages to be No. 1 with young people as a young conservative politician,” Tilman Kuban, leader of Germany’s conservative youth wing, said days after his party’s devastating election defeat.

Christoph Ploss, the head of the Christian Democrats in Hamburg, cited Austria as a “good example” of how to resurrect conservatism. “Over there,” he explained, “the partner party provided a clear direction.”

When asked last week if the allegations against Mr. Kurz had changed their minds, both men declined to comment.

It’s difficult to say what Mr. Kurz’s resignation means. On Saturday, he resigned as chancellor after his coalition partners, the Greens, said they could not continue to govern with him in light of the current allegations and threatened a vote of no confidence. He is still the party’s leader and a member of Parliament.

Some predict that even after his anointed successor and loyal ally, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, is sworn in as chancellor on Monday, Mr. Kurz will retain control and may even stage a comeback.

It wouldn’t be his first time reinventing himself.

Mr. Kurz, a former conservative youth leader who distributed branded condoms as a campaign stunt and eventually earned a reputation as a liberal integration minister, veered sharply to the right, winning elections and forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.

After his first government imploded two years ago, he was re-elected and increased his party’s vote share even further. He then formed an unlikely alliance with the far smaller Green Party.

Mr. Kurz is, in many ways, less representative of traditional conservatism and more representative of the political opportunism associated with a new strain of right-wing politics that has emerged in Europe in the space between the old center-right and a crop of noisy far-right parties on the extreme.

“The new right-wing politics about immigration and identity — that right-wing politics you see all over Europe,” Mr. Garton Ash said.

Even after the scandals that have engulfed Austria, he believes the temptation to move right will remain.

“The most dangerous populists are probably the ones who don’t look like populists,” Mr. Garton Ash said. “That is correct for Johnson, and it was correct for Kurz.”

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Austrian Political Scandal Leaves Europe’s Conservatives in Need of New Path