Tag Archives: FPO

Austrian center wins a hollow presidential victory

Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly defeated the far right in Austria's presidential election, but it might ultimately be a Phyrric victory. (Amélie Chapalain / Facebook)
Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly defeated the far right in Austria’s presidential election, but it might ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory. (Amélie Chapalain / Facebook)

It took the counting of around 750,000 postal votes on Monday to settle what had been a too-close-to-call runoff to determine who would win Austria’s (mostly ceremonial) presidency.austria flag

The winner, by a very narrow margin, is Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old professor and, nominally an independent, though formerly a parliamentary leader of the Die Grünen (Austrian Green Party), and you could almost hear the palpable sigh of relief from across the European Union as far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer conceded defeat.

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But it’s a hollow relief.

The result means that Austria’s hard right will not occupy the presidency and, therefore, will not be able to attempt to terminate the current government or try to wrest greater powers from Austria’s parliament. But given the tumult of the past month in Austrian politics, the hard right has clearly been emboldened by the presidential race, and it will now look to the next parliamentary elections to take real power.

The first-round, double-digit victory of Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old candidate of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), stunned not only Austria, but all of Europe. It represents the closest than any far-right party has come to winning power at the national level in the European Union since the 1930s.

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RELATED: Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

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Its success shouldn’t have been surprising. The Freedom Party has increasingly gained on the country’s mainstream parties, and it nearly toppled state governments in regional elections last autumn.

Despite its defeat, the FPÖ has been able not only to undermine a sitting chancellor, but to force his resignation. After social democratic chancellor Werner Faymann initially welcomed refugees to Austria last summer, he abruptly reversed course under pressure from the Freedom Party and angry voters, instead co-opting the rhetoric and the policies of the far right, complete with border fences and anti-immigration crackdowns.

But the candidate of Faymann’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) finished in fourth place, and shortly after the first-round vote, the Social Democrats essentially forced Faymann to resign, bringing to an end an eight-year tenure leading a grand coalition government with the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party). For its part, the ÖVP presidential candidate placed an even more disappointing fifth.

Faymann, to his credit, ably led Austria through the 2008-09 global financial panic and the 2010 eurozone crisis, and Austria and its banking system, moreover, helped stave off a broader crisis in central Europe and the Balkans. Instead of leaving office, having made the noble case for welcoming refugees, he left power earlier this month after capitulating to the hard right. Continue reading Austrian center wins a hollow presidential victory

Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria's presidential election. (Facebook)
Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election. (Facebook)

On a day when Serbians reelected their pro-European government in landslide, the spotlight suddenly fell on Austria instead.austria flag

Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the anti-immigrant, far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election, while the candidates of the two governing parties fell to fourth and fifth place.

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Hofer’s first-round lead of more than 10% shocked not only Vienna, but the entire European Union.

At age 45, Hofer is not nearly as well known as some of the Freedom Party’s top officials, including its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. But his fresh-faced appeal might have improved the party’s chances, in contrast to one of the FPÖ’s more established figures. Austria has admitted more refugees, on a per-capita basis, than even Germany, and Hofer spent much of his campaign trashing Austria’s willingness to pay more into the European Union than it receives in return, stoking anger over bailouts to Greece and other member-state with crippling debt. Continue reading Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

Vienna's Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)
Vienna’s Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)

Sometimes, what doesn’t happen in an election matters more than what does happen.austria flag

So it was in Vienna on Sunday, when Michael Häupl, the longtime center-left mayor held onto power. That’s not so surprising, because his Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) has controlled Vienna’s state government in every election in the postwar era.

What’s more, though polls showed that the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) was trailing the Social Democrats by just 1% in the week before Vienna’s elections, the Freedom Party actually lost by nearly 10%. Though the Freedom Party’s result marks a gain against its prior result in 2010, and its strength is growing amid the backdrop of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis, its failure in Vienna is notable.

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After an election campaign that pitted Häupl in competition directly with the Freedom Party’s leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the far right’s failure to break through should come as a relief to Austria’s entire political mainstream, of both right and left. Had Strache won the election, it would have shaken the foundations of the grand coalition that governs Austria under Social Democratic chancellor Werner Faymann.

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Vienna, aside from being Austria’s capital, is also the country’s largest state, with 1.8 million of Austria’s 8.6 million people, so elections for the Landtag invariably influence the national political climate. Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative), the third-placed party, won enough seats to give the SPÖ-led coalition a majority in the state assembly. Continue reading Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.
Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.

Amid the refugee crisis that has strained European borders, internal and external, since late summer, there’s increasing discussion of using formal diplomatic sanctions against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán for his intransigence in dealing with migrants, many of whom are Syrians fleeing years of civil war or otherwise miserable refugee camps in an overburdened Lebanon.austria flag

The last time that the European Union assessed diplomatic sanctions, however, was in 2000, when it chided Austria for letting the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) into government.

But in the first electoral test for the eastern European countries at the heart of the migrant crisis, it was the FPÖ that emerged as the clear winner, surging 9% to second place in Oberösterreich (Upper Austria)’s regional elections and winning 18 of the regional parliament’s 56 seats.

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Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, already had reason to be pleased with himself after taking the party to third-place status in Austria’s national parliamentary elections in September 2013.

His party only narrowly lost to the long-dominant center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), which has controlled the state government since 1945, and whose leader, Josef Pühringer, has served as the state’s governor since 1995. Though its population is just 1.44 million, the state is Austria’s industrial heartland and the country’s third-most populous state, and it borders Germany’s Bavaria and the Czech Republic. The  center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) of Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann fell to third place.

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Since 2003, the Austrian People’s Party has governed Upper Austria in a so-called ‘black-green’ coalition with Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative). Though the Greens actually improved on their support from the most recent election in 2009, the ÖVP’s loss of seven seats means that their partnership is two seats short of a majority in the unicameral Landtag. Pühringer will have to form a minority government, looking to the Social Democrats or the Freedom Party for support on a case-by-case basis or otherwise enter into negotiations for a ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats. Continue reading Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

skepticismAs voters in 28 European countries prepare to head to the polls, beginning on May 22 and running through May 25, no one knows whether Europe’s center-left or center-right will win more seats, and no one knows who will ultimately become the next president of the European Commission.European_Union

But the one thing upon which almost everyone agrees is that Europe’s various eurosceptic parties are set for a huge victory — not enough seats to determine the outcomes of EU legislation and policymaker, perhaps, but enough to form a strong, if disunited, bloc of relatively anti-federalist voices. Voters, chiefly in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, are set to cast strong protest votes that could elect more than 100 eurosceptic MEPs.

In some countries, such as Spain, euroscepticism is still a limited force the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) is tied for the lead with the governing center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. But Spain is quickly becoming an outlier as eurosceptic parties are springing up in places where unionist sentiment once ran strong.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections
RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

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Of course, not all eurosceptics are created equally. Some anti-Europe parties have been around for decades, while others weren’t even in existence at the time of the last elections in 2009. Some are virulently xenophobic, far-right or even neo-Nazi in their outlooks, while others are cognizably on the more mainstream conservative / leftist ideological spectrum. Some seek nothing short of their country’s withdrawal from the European Union altogether, while others seek greater controls on immigration. Some are even pro-Europe in the abstract, but oppose eurozone membership. That’s one of the reasons why eurosceptics have had so much trouble uniting across national lines — the mildest eurosceptic parties abhor the xenophobes, for example.

If everyone acknowledges that eurosceptic parties will do well when the votes are all counted on Sunday, no one knows whether that represents a peak of anti-Europe support, given the still tepid economy and high unemployment across the eurozone, or whether it’s part of a trend that will continue to grow in 2019 and 2024.

With 100 seats or so in the European Parliament, eurosceptics can’t cause very many problems. They can make noise, and they stage protests, but they won’t hold up the EU parliamentary agenda. With 200 or even 250 seats, though, they could cause real damage. There’s no rule that says that eurosceptics can’t one day win the largest block of EP seats, especially so long as most European voters ignore Europe-wide elections or treat them as an opportunity to protest unpopular national government.

For now, though, they’re all bound to cause plenty of trouble for their more mainstream rivals at the national level, and in at least five countries, they could wind up with the largest share of the vote. So it’s still worth paying attention to them.

Without further ado, here are the top 13 eurosceptic parties to keep an eye on as the results are announced on Sunday:

Continue reading A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

Le Pen v. Wilders: a tale of two far-right European movements

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The big story from Sunday’s municipal elections in France is the success of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front national (FN, National Front), overshadowing the marquee Paris mayoral election.France Flag IconNetherlands Flag IconEuropean_Union

The far-right won the mayoral race in Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town in the north, in a rare first-round victory, the FN came in second in Marseille, France’s second-largest city, and it led in at least six other locations as France prepares for second-round runoffs on March 30.

The result should certainly boost Le Pen in her efforts to win  support in European parliamentary elections in May — and to unite the populist hard right across the continent.

According to preliminary results, the Front national won just 4.65% of the national vote. That’s a big deal because the party was running in just 597 of around 37,000 jurisdictions — it’s a massive increase from the 2008 municipal results, when the FN won around 1% and ran in just 119 constituencies. 

The other narrative from Sunday’s vote is the collapse of France’s center-left — president François Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) won 37.74% nationally, while the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) of former president Nicolas Sarkozy won 46.54% nationally. The bright spot for the Socialists remains Paris, where first deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo is the slight favorite to win a runoff against former Sarkozy campaign spokesperson and ecology minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet — but don’t rule out an upset next Sunday there, either.

The success in the 2014 municipal elections is just the latest chapter for Le Pen’s rebranding of the Front national in France as a slightly more moderate alternative than the party her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led for decades. It’s harder today to target the Front national as a xenophobic, anti-Semitic fringe, because Le Pen has focused on an agenda much heavier on euroskepticism and economic nationalism. While the Front national isn’t exactly immigrant-friendly, its position has largely converged with the UMP’s position since the Sarkozy presidency, which embraced hard-right positions on immigration and law-and-order issues. By shifting rightward, Sarkozy may have sidelined Le Pen during his presidency and co-opted her supporters, but today, Sarkozy is almost as responsible as Le Pen for bringing the Front national within the political mainstream.

With the line blurring between the UMP and the Front national, Le Pen could become the chief voice of the French right in 2017, especially if the UMP succumbs to more infighting between its right-wing leader Jean-François Copé and the more moderate former prime minister François Fillon. The next presidential election is still a long way off, but if Sarkozy doesn’t run for the presidency in 2017, Le Pen stands just as much chance as Copé, Fillon or any other UMP figure of representing the French right in the second round.

More immediately troubling for France’s political elite are the European parliamentary elections in May. Despite its breakthrough performance on Sunday, the Front national isn’t about to overrun the city halls of France. Its victory is more symbolic than substantive. But if it’s one thing to turn over your local government to Marine Le Pen, it’s a far different thing to support the Front national as a protest vote with respect to European Union policy.

Polls show that the Front national and the UMP are competing for first place in the European elections within France — the most recent Opinion Way poll from early March shows the UMP winning  22%, the FN winning 21% and the Socialists just 17%. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a wave of undecided voters support the Front national at the last moment, nor would it be a surprise to learn that polling surveys currently underestimate FN support.

Extremists on both the far left and the far right are gaining strength throughout the entire European Union. That’s perhaps understandable, given the harsh economic conditions that have plagued Europe since the last EU-wide elections in 2009. But the euroskeptic right, in particular, seems poised for a breakthrough. Nigel Farage hopes to lead the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party to a breakthrough performance in May, and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) is tied for first place in polls in Austria.

But just as Le Pen hits her stride, another standard-bearer of the hard right, Geert Wilders, found himself in free fall last week after pledging to allow fewer Moroccans into the Netherlands, remarks that have launched a cascade of criticism and a handful of defections from his party: Continue reading Le Pen v. Wilders: a tale of two far-right European movements

Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

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While most of Europe was watching the birth of Germany’s latest grand coalition government last week, Austria’s grand coalition also finalized its government platform.austria flag

Austria, which has an even stronger tradition of cozy coalition politics between the center-left and the center right, will continue to a coalition that’s comprised of its main center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and its main center-right party, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

There was very little unexpected news about the coalition deal, which will continue the broadly centrist course of center-left chancellor Werner Faymann’s government.

But the decision to elevate the hunky 27-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s new foreign minister was something of a shock.  Michael Spindelegger, the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor, who previously served as foreign minister between 2008 and 2013, will become the government’s new finance minister.

The decision leaves Kurz (pictured above) as one of the world’s youngest political leaders in such a high policymaking role.

So who is this whiz kid?  Kurz became involved in politics at age 10, and by 2009, he was the leader of the youth wing of the Austrian People’s Party.  In 2010, he was elected to the city council of his native Vienna, running under the slogan, ‘Schwarz macht neil‘ (‘Black is cool,’ referring to the color most associated with the People’s Party) in a campaign Hummer that quickly gained the nickname as the ‘Geilomobil‘ (which translates roughly to ‘Horny-mobile’), befitting Kurz’s growing reputation as somewhat of a party animal.  Before you judge him too harshly, however, remember that it was part of a wider push to make the ÖVP more attractive to young voters. And just four months ago, two competing leaders of the Austrian far right both posed shirtless in public.

But by 2011 he was already serving as state secretary for integration, where he impressed skeptics by working to ease the path for the growing number of immigrants to Austria, including through the institution of an extra year of pre-school for immigrant children to learn German.  He helped spearhead a new immigration law in May of this year that clears a path to citizenship for some immigrants within six years.

It was a controversial move on Spindelegger’s part, but it paid off, and Kurz was elected to the Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament, in the September 29 parliamentary elections with a higher number of votes than any other candidate. 

His approach contrasts with that of the more xenophobic approach to immigration of Austria’s far right.  In  September, the Social Democrats won 27.1% and the Austrian People’s Party won 23.8%, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won 21.4%, a strong third-place finish.  But a Dec. 12 Hajek poll showed that if the elections were held over today, the Freedom Party would emerge as the leading party with 26%, followed by the Social Democrats with 23% and the Austrian People’s Party at 20%.  A new free-market libertarian partyDas Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), which entered the National Council for the first time in September’s elections, would win 11%.

The Freedom Party’s relatively young and charismatic leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, wasted no time in criticizing Kurz for his inexperience:

“When Mr Kurz becomes foreign minister without any diplomatic experience, you have to be amazed. This is the continuation of Austria’s farewell to foreign policy,” right-wing leader Heinz Christian Strache told parliament on Tuesday.

Kurz… took the blows.  “It’s true, of course. Due to my age I have limited experience and of course hardly any diplomatic experience. But what I bring is lots of diligence, energy and the desire to contribute something,” he told Reuters.

But Kurz emphasized the international nature of his previous role with respect to integration, and he argued that his relative youth and high media profile would allow him to make an immediate impact.  Though Austria, with just 8.5 million people, has a less dominant voice on European matters than Germany, it plays a key role in the Balkans, where Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries are hoping to begin accession talks to the European Union early next year. (If your German skills are up for it, here’s an interview with Kurz in Der Standard earlier this week).

Kurz’s appointment also means that he will likely take a key role in the upcoming European Parliament elections by convincing Austrian voters not to turn to euroskeptic parties like the Freedom Party or Team Stronach, the conservative movement of Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach.  Spindelegger was criticized during his tenure at the ministry for being a ‘half-time foreign minister’ in light of his duties as the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor. Continue reading Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

Austrian election results: grand coalition reelected, Freedom Party solidifies gains on far right

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With nearly all of the votes counted in Austria’s election today, it appears that the current grand coalition led by center-left chancellor Werner Faymann will continue — for up to another five years.austria flag

Just one week after Germans massively supported chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats for steering Germany largely unscathed through the worst of the economic crisis, Austrians appeared ready to do the same for Faymann, though his Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) did not score the kind of overwhelming victory that Merkel’s Christian Democrats won last week — the SPÖ lost over 2% of the vote since the September 2008 election.

But their coalition partners, the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), also lost 2.2% of the vote from 2008.  Together, however, the two parties won enough seats (99) to continue to hold an absolute majority in Austria’s 183-member Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament.

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But the far-right, anti-EU, anti-immigrant Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won just four seats less than the People’s Party and it won over 21% of the vote.  That’s largely because voters on the far right abandoned the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ, Alliance for the Future of Austria), the splinter group that former Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider founded in 2005.

Believe it or not, today’s election was the first one without Haider in nearly two decades following his sensational death in October 2008, and the BZÖ lost over 7% from the 2008 election — and missed the 4% electoral hurdle required to hold seats in Austria’s National Council.  Given Haider’s absence from the political scene, many BZÖ supporters turned back to the Freedom Party.  In any event, it’s certainly a huge victory for FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache (pictured above), whose party gained more support than any of the parties that contested the 2008 election.  Strache is one of the big winners in today’s election, and that will amplify his voice as the chief opposition leader in Austria.

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Continue reading Austrian election results: grand coalition reelected, Freedom Party solidifies gains on far right

Austria election tomorrow likely to result in grand coalition, reelection for Faymann

Austria goes to the polls tomorrow to select 183 members of the Nationalrat (National Council), the lower house of Austria’s parliament — but by far the most important.  What better musical selection than Johann Strauss II’s Kaiserwaltzer?austria flag

Austria’s elections are determined on the basis of proportional representation, so no matter who wins, Austria will have a coalition government.

The most likely result, according to polls, is the continuation of a ‘red-black’ or ‘grand’ coalition between the two dominant parties in Austrian politics, the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

Polls also showed the anti-EU, anti-immigration, right-wing Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) gaining ground, but still in third place.

Though Austria’s chancellor Werner Faymann leads a consensus-driven government, he’s in some ways the opposite of German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose own center-right party won a huge victory just last weekend.  With an approach that’s leaned away from the austerity budgets of much of the rest of Europe, Faymann has boosted Austrian spending over the past five years on stimulative measures, including a massive commitment to job training.  That’s left Austria with the lowest unemployment rate among the 28 member states of the European Union.

Even if the SPÖ and the ÖVP win the largest and second-largest shares of the vote, they may still not win enough seats to form a majority because up to seven parties could win seats today.

Austria’s Die Grünen – Die Grüne Alternative (Green Party) will likely be the fourth-largest party in the National Council, but three smaller parties could also enter the parliament — the new eurosceptic Team Stronach, founded last year by Austrian-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach; the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ, Alliance for the Future of Austria), a liberal splinter group of the FPÖ; and Das Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), a new liberal party that formed last year as well.

Meet Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann, Europe’s Superman of Keynesian economics

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Austrians go to the polls on September 29, and just as with Germany’s election last weekend, voters seem inclined to reward a government that has largely kept Austria’s economy strong through a time of recession and unemployment throughout much of the rest of Europe.austria flag

But German chancellor Angela Merkel has steered a largely moderate, pragmatic course over the past eight years in Germany, and it’s arguable that Germany’s economic success owes much to its position as Europe’s largest economy and its role as a leading global high-tech manufacturer than to any Merkel-era economic policies — if anything, Merkel’s center-left predecessor Gerhard Schröder pushed through the policies (including the Hartz IV labor and welfare reforms) that steeled Germany for the economic storm of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

In Austria, however, it’s been an even more sanguine story.

The country has a 4.8% unemployment rate, according to Eurostat, the lowest among all 27 countries in the European Union.  Its GDP dropped just 3.8% in 2008 (a narrower drop than in Germany), and it returned to growth thereafter — even in 2012, it managed to record GDP growth of 0.8% while most of the eurozone was mired in recession.

So what has Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann and his government done over the past five years in order to steer Austria out of the straits of the eurozone morass?  As it turns out, a lot.

While several European countries have served as battlegrounds for harsh transatlantic battles among economists over economic policy (the usual suspects, but also places like Iceland, Latvia and Estonia), you would think that neo-Keynesian economists would be shouting from the rooftops about Austria’s economic stewardship.  Don’t confuse Austria’s economic policy today with Austrian economics, as such, which is something very much the opposite.

Since his election in September 2008, Faymann has led a grand coalition between his own center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), and it’s about as anti-austerity a government as Europe has seen.

Given the strength of the Austrian labor movement, Austria immediately pursued the kind of work-sharing policies that Germany also adopted in the aftermath of the crisis when aggregate demand tumbled — the idea that shorter working hours for everyone would be a way to disperse the slack in the economy, thereby avoiding the wave of layoffs that we saw in the United States.

But Faymann also pushed through job training legislation that massively empowered Austria’s Arbeitsmarktservice (AMS, Austrian Employment Service), including strong benefits for the unemployed and the guarantee of a paid training internship for young Austrians in the marketplace.  Austria’s labor market has performed exactly the opposite of that in the United States — unemployment rose in Austria because more workers were seeking jobs, while the US unemployment rate has dropped partly because so many American workers have given up on finding employment.

Faymann also allowed Austria’s public debt to rise from around 60% in 2008 to 75% today in order to finance the jobs legislation and other stimulative measures to shore up Austria’s economy.  His government also took the lead in convincing the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to provide up to €125 billion to stabilize banks in the Central European and South Eastern European (CESEE) region, a strategy that worked to reassure global investors.  A financial panic in CESEE region countries, such as Hungary, would have led to massive losses for Austrian banks as well.  The idea is that a credible commitment from government at the outset of a financial crisis will stave off a larger financial panic.  Contrast the far less proactive European response to the wider sovereign debt crisis — it was only in July 2012, the eurozone crisis’s third year, that European Central Bank president Mario Draghi said he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the euro.

Faymann is campaigning on a platform of instituting a wealth tax on millionaires and institutionalizing a levy on the assets of large banks, both of which Faymann hopes will keep income inequality relatively low in a society that already has one of the world’s lowest Gini coefficients.

With a record like that, why isn’t Paul Krugman cheerleading for Faymann from the op-ed pages of The New York Times?  Here’s a European leader who has pursued as close to a Krugmanite economic policy as anyone.

For one, you could easily argue that Austria’s just been lucky.   Continue reading Meet Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann, Europe’s Superman of Keynesian economics

Austrian NEOS may win seats in Nationalrat in resurrection of liberal politics

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While Germany’s major liberal party suffered a historic defeat in last weekend’s parliamentary elections, a new Austrian party may win enough seats to return a liberal voice to Austria’s parliament for the first time in nearly 20 years in Austria’s national elections this weekend.austria flag

If it can win 4% of the vote on Sunday, the Das Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria) could enter the Nationalrat, the key 183-member chamber of Austria’s parliament, which would mean that free-market and social liberals would have a voice in Austrian parliamentary politics for the first time since the Liberales Forum (Liberal Forum) lost all of its seats in the 1999 parliamentary elections.  Polls in the lead-up to Austria’s election show the NEOS gaining strength, but still hovering between 3% and the 4% electoral hurdle, and the NEOS continues to gain credibility and momentum in the final days of the campaign.

What’s more, if the NEOS enter the parliament, and the two current governing parties, the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) of chancellor Werner Faymann and the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), fail to win an absolute majority of seats to continue a two-party grand coalition, the NEOS could conceivably enter government as well in Europe’s first ‘red-black-pink’ coalition.

Given the coziness of Austria’s political elite, and the fact that grand coalitions have dominated Austrian governance in the postwar era, there’s much to recommend the return of a fresh and liberal voice to Austrian politics — or even Austrian government.  Not too shabby for a party that didn’t exist one year ago.

The NEOS were founded as a political party in October 2012, mainly as an alliance of what remains of the Liberal Forum and the Young Liberals, another small party, under the leadership of Matthias Strolz.  Since September, the party’s lead parliamentary candidate has been Hans-Peter Haselsteiner, the CEO of Austrian construction company Strabag and a Liberal deputy in the Nationalrat in the 1990s — it was a stunning reversal for Haselsteiner, who had previously remained somewhat aloof from the NEOS earlier this year.  Not only does Haselsteiner have the deep pockets to finance a strong showing, he’s also one of the most well-known liberals in the country.  Austrians vote for parties through an open-list proportional representation system, so if the NEOS surpass the 4% threshold, the NEOS should count on at least seven seats in the Nationalrat.

Moreover, if the NEOS do enter the Nationalrat, they could lower the total number of seats that the SPÖ and ÖVP can hope to win, making it even more likely that the SPÖ and ÖVP will be forced to look for a third coalition partner to cobble together a governing majority.

In an ironic twist, the NEOS could well enter Austria’s parliament just days after Germany’s Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) narrowly failed to win 5% of the vote and, accordingly, Germany’s liberal party failed to win a single seat in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, for the first time since 1949.  Continue reading Austrian NEOS may win seats in Nationalrat in resurrection of liberal politics

In Germany’s shadow, Austria also prepares for late September election

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In central Europe, another German-speaking nation is heading to the polls next month in a race that will likely also result in a broad left/right ‘grand coalition.’austria flag

Austria’s parliamentary elections on September 29 will affect a population that’s just two-thirds that of the German state of Bavaria, but the campaign features many of the same dynamics as Germany’s federal elections that will be held exactly one week prior — a broad centrist consensus on economic policy, the likelihood of yet another ‘grand coalition,’ flush economic conditions relative to the rest of Europe and static polls all year long indicating a narrow center-left win.

But there are key differences as well — unlike in Germany, where Christian democratic chancellor Angela Merkel is favored for reelection, it’s Austria’s social democratic chancellor Werner Faymann who will likely return as chancellor.  Moreover, there’s a far-right component to Austrian politics that simply doesn’t exist in Germany.  While the far-right remains divided among three competing parties (and that makes it unlikely that they will form a government), the far-right parties could cumulative outpoll the center-left and the center-right.

Let’s start with the fundamentals — Austria’s economy grew by an estimated 0.6% last year and 2.7% in 2011, and though its growth this year has been virtually negligible, it dipped into negative growth (-0.1%) for just one quarter (Q4 2012), so it’s difficult to say that Austria has even suffered a recession, at least in technical terms.  Although the European Union’s unemployment rate, as of June 2013, remains 10.9% and the eurozone’s unemployment rate an even higher 12.3%, Austria has the absolute lowest unemployment of all 27 EU nations: at 4.6%, Austria’s unemployment is nearly a percentage point lower than the second-lowest, Germany, which has a 5.4% unemployment rate.

That means that the anti-incumbent moods that pushed out French president Nicolas Sarkozy last year and has already weakened his leftist successor, François Hollande, and that upended governments in Greece, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere over the past year, doesn’t have the same punch in Austria.

The latest Gallup poll from Austria dated August 22, is representative — it shows that Faymann’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) holds a narrow lead over its current coalition partner, the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party):

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The three far-right parties, taken together, however, attract the support of 29% of all Austrian voters — the largest, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria), is the longstanding anti-immigrant, anti-EU, extreme-right conservative party in Austria, and it was the party that the late Jörg Haider led controversially into a government coalition in 2000 with the ÖVP.

But Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach, who returned to his homeland last year after decades as chief executive officer of his Ontario-based auto parts company, is leading an alternative populist, eurosceptic right-wing party — Team Stronach — that’s attracting between 8% and 10% of the vote.

Finally, the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ, Alliance for the Future of Austria), which Haider founded in 2005 when he left the FPÖ, is in danger of losing all of its seats in Austria’s parliament following Haider’s sensational November 2008 death and Stronach’s recent rise.

But most recently, Stronach and the FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache have made more headlines over shirtless photos than policy matters.   Furthermore, in March’s local elections in the southernmost state of Carinthia, where Haider had served as governor for nearly a decade, the Freedom Party’s share of the vote dropped from about 45% to just 17%, and the Social Democrats swept to power under its leader Peter Kaiser in alliance with the Die Grünen – Die Grüne Alternative (Green Party).  Nationally, the Greens are polling at around 15%, which would mark a 40% increase from their 2008 result.

Austrian voters also widely prefer Faymann to continue as chancellor over ÖVP leader and foreign minister Michael Spindelegger — Faymann took over just weeks after the global financial crisis in 2008, and he has pursued one of the most successful center-left policy agendas in Europe.  Like in Germany, Austria pursued work-sharing policies (e.g., shorter working hours for everyone) in the immediate aftermath of the crisis to avoid massive layoffs.  Faymann’s government has also enacted some of the world’s most successful job training legislation and other forward measures to assist workers remain competitive through Austria’s Arbeitsmarktservice (AMS, Austrian Employment Service): Continue reading In Germany’s shadow, Austria also prepares for late September election

Photo of the day: Austrian Freedom Party leader (nearly) bares all

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There’s just something undeniably homoerotic about the Austrian far right.austria flag

It all started when octogenarian Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach, the leader of Team Stronach, a new eurosceptic party contesting Austria’s upcoming parliamentary elections, bared his chest over the weekend while talking to reporters from his lakeside home.  But Heinz-Christian Strache (pictured above), the leader of the more established far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), felt the need to show even more skin in an uncharacteristic race to the bottom.

Declaring himself at top fitness going into the campaign, Strache uploaded the photo to his Facebook page over the weekend as well, with his party poised to win nearly one-fifth of Austrian voters next month. Continue reading Photo of the day: Austrian Freedom Party leader (nearly) bares all

Stronach’s much-heralded Austrian effort falls flat in Lower Austria and Carinthia

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It takes some brass for anyone, even a billionaire, to come to Austria after a lifetime in Canada thinking he can revolutionize politics, least of all as a know-it-all North American running against the euro — a monetary project infused with much more emotional and social content than just economics. austria flag

But brass runs strong in the Stronach family, and although Belinda Stronach took Canada by storm a few years ago — first as a candidate for leader of the Conservative Party and later as a minister in Paul Martin’s ill-fated Liberal government before she crashed and burned when the Liberals lost the 2006 federal election — her father, Frank Stronach, mostly seemed content as the chairman of Magna International, the hugely successful Canadian auto parts company that he founded.

Stronach, a citizen of both Canada and Austria, came to Canada at age 18 from Austria and, while he’s had an incredibly philanthropic footprint in Austria, he’s always been better known as an international businessman and billionaire than as a politician.

Until last year, when, after retiring as Magna’s chairman in 2011, Stronach founded a new party in AustriaTeam Stronach, that had its first test in local elections Sunday in Lower Austria and Carinthia, two of Austria’s nine states.  The party, which promotes classical liberalism, supports an all-volunteer army (despite a January 2013 referendum in which Austrians voted 60 to 40% to retain its current conscription force), a 25% flat tax on national incomes and, most controversially, the reintroduction of the Austrian shilling.  Unlike many far right parties in Austria and in Europe, however, Stronach’s party is pro-immigrant and, except as regards the euro, fairly pro-Europe.

The name of Frank’s new party, ‘Team Stronach’ tells you everything you need to know about the movement — it’s more an 80-year-old man’s legacy project than a protest movement like, say, Beppe Grillo’s near-revolutionary Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) in Italy.  Even in Prague, foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg is taken more seriously despite charges of carpetbagging — he lost the recent Czech presidential election in part because he spent over four decades of his early life outside Czechoslovakia / the Czech Republic (in Austria, of all places).

Despite a colorful collection of small parties, politics in Austria, a relatively wealthy Central European country of 8.5 million, remains essentially dominated by two parties — the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, the Social Democratic Party) and the Christian democratic Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, the People’s Party).  The SPÖ and the ÖVP have governed in a ‘grand coalition’ since 2006.

Two additional parties have historically held significant influence as well — the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party), a right-wing populist party, well-known for its fiery former leader Jörg Haider, who led the party to government in 1999 and in 2002 (as a junior partner with the ÖVP), and the Greens (Die Grünen).

Austria will vote at the end of September 2013 to elect the 183 members of its lower house of parliament, the National Council (Nationalrat) — polls show the SPÖ, led by Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, holds a narrow, but steady, lead (25% to 28%) over the ÖVP (with around 22% to 24%), with the FPÖ a bit behind (19% to 22%) and the Greens even further behind (13% to 15%).  Team Stronach is in fifth place — although its support is growing, it has peaked at around 8% to 12% of the vote.

Austria, unlike most European countries, is still posting economic growth — between 0.5% and 1.0% in 2012 and nearly 3.0% in 2011, despite an increasingly relentless recession throughout Europe that is now threatening to affect even Germany.  Austrian unemployment remains relatively low as well — around 9%, but still less than Italy’s unemployment.

So how did Stronach’s new party do on Sunday in Lower Austria and Carinthia? Continue reading Stronach’s much-heralded Austrian effort falls flat in Lower Austria and Carinthia

Is Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder really the most dangerous politician in Europe?

Der Spiegel ranks the top 10 most dangerous politicians in Europe, and you might be surprised at who comes out on top.

The piece targets Markus Söder, the finance minister of Bavaria since November 2011:

The politician from the [Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union)], the conservative sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is known for his tub-thumping rhetoric and has stepped up a gear in the euro crisis with vitriolic comments about Greece. “An example must be made of Athens, that this euro zone can show teeth,” he told the Bild am Sonntag tabloid newspaper this week. “Everyone has to leave Mom at some point and that time has come for the Greeks.”

It also points the finger at Alexander Dobrindt, general secretary of the CSU to which Söder also belongs — Dobrindt has also called on Greece to exit the eurozone by paying its debts in drachmas instead of euros.

Söder, an up-and-coming politician in the CSU, has previously served as minister for environment and health from 2008 to 2011 and from 2007 to 2008, as minister for federal and European affairs.  He’s a solid populist, to be sure — for example, he’s in favor of Bavaria’s ban on the wearing of Muslim head scarves (but not nun’s habits).

But it’s easy enough to explain away the relatively strident tone from Söder and the CSU as political posturing in advance of Bavarian state elections that must take place sometime in 2013.  The CSU will be struggling to maintain the grip that its held on Bavarian state politics since the 1950s.  At the federal level, although the CSU-backed Angel Merkel has walked a tight line when it comes to balancing national and federalist European interests, but her leftist opponents are even more federalist when it comes to Europe and the eurozone.

The Spiegel list is dominated by some of the nationalist right’s usual suspects: Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and a member of the European Parliament; Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front national in France; Timo Soini, leader of the Perussuomalaiset (PS, True Finns) party, also a member of the European Parliament; Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom); and Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Austrian Freedom Party).

They seem like odd choices, though, because none of them (except perhaps Strache) seem to be on the upswing.  Wilders is polling quite dreadfully in advance of the Dutch elections on Sept. 4.  Farage and Soini are sideshows at best.  Despite her strong showing in the French presidential election in April and the shadow she casts over the French center-right, Le Pen failed to win a seat in France’s national assembly in the June elections — and her party won just two seats in total.

To me, the following politicians are far more “dangerous” — by “dangerous,” I mean the ability to win real power or to be more effective in making mischief: Continue reading Is Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder really the most dangerous politician in Europe?