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The return of a “political wunderkind”: Results of parliamentary elections in Austria

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At the end of September, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by the former Chancellor – the 33-year-old “political prodigy” Sebastian Kurz – once again came out on top in snap parliamentary elections. According to a preliminary count, to be finalized on October 16, the ÖVP secured 37.5 percent of the vote, and will take 71 of the 183 seats in the National Council (lower house of parliament).

Political commentators still predict serious problems Sebastian Kurz may face in putting together his new Cabinet. What consequences will the outcome of the September 29 vote have for Austria and for Europe as a whole?

The snap general election in Austria followed the publication of secret recordings in May, which led to the collapse of the ruling coalition of the conservative, center-right Austrian People’s Party and the “far right” “nationalist” Freedom Party (FPÖ). In the July 2017 video, published by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the leaders of the Freedom Party are heard promising government contracts and commercial preferences to a woman, posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch on Ibiza, Spain. As transpired later, the hidden camera recording had been arranged by journalists dissatisfied with political gains, made by the FPÖ.

The results of the September 29 vote showed that while the “Ibiza scandal” had seriously undermined the Austrian voters’ support for the “ultra-right,” it simultaneously bolstered the positions of the ÖVP, which won nine more parliamentary seats than it did in the 2017 election. The center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), who have dominated much of the country’s postwar politics, fell to their worst ever result with 40 seats – 12 short of their 2017 result. The Freedom Party suffered massive losses ending up in third place, losing 10 percent of the vote and winning just 31 parliamentary seats – 20 less than in 2017. The Greens (Die Grüne Alternative), previously not represented on the National Council, won 26 seats, and the liberal NEOS/New Austria party won 15 mandates, thus adding five seats to their previous number.

The People’s Party thus confirms its status as the country’s leading political force, winning a second back-to-back election for the first time since the 1960s. Most observers believe that the conservatives owe much of their electoral success to Sebastian Kurz, a young politician who, already as a former foreign minister, led the ÖVP in the spring of 2017, amid the growing popular discontent with the “triumph of political centrism.”

According to Fyodor Lukyanov, the chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, just as the traditional parties kept promising their supporters “even more stability and predictability of the whole system,” the people were getting increasingly worried about the watering down of “the very essence of politics as a clash of views and mindsets.” Meanwhile, Europe has been grappling with crises, ranging “from debt to migration.” Voters were losing faith in the ability by the traditional parties, with their predilection for reaching consensus even at the cost of emasculating the proposed solutions, to find adequate answers to the new domestic and external challenges facing the EU. This is what the People’s Party, one of Austria’s two “systemic” parties, looked like when Sebastian Kurz took over as its chairman, as it tried to move even further away from ideological certainty and advocate “all things good against everything that is bad.” As a result, it was only losing the confidence of its onetime supporters.

According to the London-based weekly magazine The Economist, two factors were critical in Sebastian Kurz’s rapid political ascent. First, Kurz filled an empty “niche” among the center-right supporters of tough refugee policies. In 2015-2016, Austria found itself at the heart of the European migration crisis – in per capita terms, the small Alpine republic had taken in more migrants than any other EU country, except Sweden. Kurz, then foreign minister, gave up his previous, quite liberal view of migration issues, embracing a hard line that envisaged closing borders and limiting asylum opportunities. Together with the governments of a several Balkan countries, Kurz has done a lot to cut off routes of illegal migration.

Secondly, many Austrians now saw Sebastian Kurz as the answer to their request for “fresh blood” and new ideas in politics. Before very long, the young leader managed to reshuffle the party leadership, including on the ground, and implement new approaches and methods of working with voters. His arrival breathed new vigor in the conservative party which, although respectable, had lost political initiative and the ability to generate fresh ideas. To the frustrated electorate, he projected an image of an energetic politician with a fresh look on the problems of Austria and Europe. During his first term as chancellor, Sebastian Kurz managed to convince a large segment of the Austrian population in his ability to successfully combine in the government the bureaucratic skills of the establishment with the ambitious and uncompromising, at times even exceedingly so, agenda of the “populists.” Kurz himself lists moves to reduce taxes and public debt among the achievements of his first government.

The outcome of the September 29 vote underscored the support the People’s Party enjoys among all sectors of the Austrian society, save, of course, for the Vienna liberals. The young politician, “who was widely viewed as a defender of the interests of the wealthy elite, can now be considered the choice of the entire people.” His electoral base continues to swell – Kurz remains the country’s most popular party leader. For his supporters, he epitomizes the political will for change, which they believe the majority of former ÖVP functionaries and the Social Democrats have lost a long time ago. And still, the traditional Austrian and European political establishment remains wary of Kurz, primarily because of his desire to team up with the ultra-right when forming his first government in late 2017. The collapse of the ruling coalition last May in the wake of the “Ibizagate” scandal with the SPÖ leaders seemed to have only confirmed these fears. However, many experts state that as Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz has proved himself as an able administrator who has “effectively deprived” the “right-wingers” of their ability to make many key policy decisions, including in the field of foreign policy.

Voters now expect him to respond to “changing expectations,” which many observers describe as historical and geopolitical pessimism. Many in Europe are worried by the weakening of the EU’s positions against the backdrop of an ongoing competition between the global powerhouses. Meanwhile, most observers believe that putting together a new Cabinet won’t be easy as there are three options for forming a majority (at least 92 mandates): a grand coalition, a renewed coalition with the FPÖ, and the so-called “dirndl government” (“turquoise-green-pink” – the colors of traditional Alpine clothing) with “greens” and liberals from NEOS. The first option could dishearten Kurz’s backers, who supported him precisely because they were fed up with a decades-long succession of governments made up of either one of the two leading parties, or both. Moreover, Kurz has “fundamental differences” with the Social Democrats on many social and economic issues. As for the new attempt to rejoin forces with the FPÖ, it is fraught with scandal that could undermine Kurz’s reputation in Europe. Finally, an alliance with the Greens and Liberals will most certainly lead to serious differences on migration, environmental and social policy.

There is an intense debate currently going on in Europe about the institutional arrangements the EU needs to resolve internal contradictions and meet external challenges. The participants in this fundamental dispute are pulling no blows, and the “Ibizagate” scandal that resulted in the collapse of Kurz’s previous government is a graphic example of that.  Meanwhile, the young and ambitious politician wants to secure a bigger role for his country in European affairs. Throughout his term as chancellor, he demonstrated a strong commitment to the political values of the “European mainstream.” He watched very closely the political processes going on in Europe, and provided maximum support for the reforms being put forward by French President Emmanuel Macron, even though he didn’t share many of Macron’s proposals for Eurozone reform, leaning more toward Germany’s more cautious stance. During his first term as Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz convinced his FPÖ coalition partners to reject the idea of Austria’s withdrawal from the EU. Now that “populists” have been on the retreat in a number of European countries – in Italy, perhaps Hungary, as well as France, where the “Yellow Jackets” movement is on the wane, few expect Kurz to brand himself as a “populist in a centrist’s skin.” The young Austrian, who has reached political heights thanks largely to his clear and unwavering stance on migration could inspire new hope in Europeans, reeling from half-hearted decisions so characteristic of the Brussels bureaucracy.

One should also keep in mind the fact that Kurz owes the notable increase in popular support to those who used to vote for the Freedom Party. And, according to the more realistically-minded people, the two political organizations still have much more in common than Kurz is willing to admit in public. Well, Kurz may have managed to solve the problem of opposing the “populists” by embracing, albeit in a softer form, some of the ideas espoused by Eurosceptics and “sovereignists.” The result, however, has been a Conservative shift “to the right.” And no matter how much Kurz and his associates insist on their firm commitment to “centrism,” it is a very different “center” – that is, a dangerous trend of the entire political spectrum of Austria and Europe gravitating “to the right.”

“Populists” may have “retreated” somewhere in the European Union. However, the third place won by the Freedom party in parliament, which still gives it an “arithmetic” chance of participating in the government, is a clear sign of the party’s potential for political survival.

The Austrian elections seem to confirm the trend that made itself so clear during the May elections to the European Parliament: fortune usually favors the political forces that do not quibble – firm supporters of “strengthening sovereignty.”

Future will show whether Sebastian Kurz’s return to power leads the way to the renaissance of “new-look” European centrists amid the gradual retreat of “nationalists” and “populists.” And also if it is a sign of the gradual adaptation of the European political establishment to the voters’ request for  a more balanced course, combining protection of the sovereign rights and national interests of EU member states and the EU’s objective need for greater federalization and centralization of common political institutions.

From our partner International Affairs

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Europe tells Biden “no way” to Cold War with China

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Amidst the first big transatlantic tensions for the Biden Administration, a new poll shows that the majority of Europeans see a new Cold War happening between the United States and China, but they don’t see themselves as a part of it.

Overwhelmingly, 62% of Europeans believe that the US is engaged in a new Cold War against China, a new poll just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations found. Just yesterday US President Joe Biden claimed before the UN General Assembly that there is no such thing and the US is not engaging in a new Cold War. So, Europeans see Biden’s bluff and call him on it.

The study was released on Wednesday by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev at the European Council on Foreign Relations and found that Europeans don’t see themselves as direct participants in the US-China Cold War. This viewpoint is most pronounced in Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Portugal and Italy, according to the study. The prevailing view, in each of the 12 surveyed EU member states, is one of irrelevance – with respondents in Hungary (91%), Bulgaria (80%), Portugal (79%), and Austria (78%) saying that their country is not in a conflict with Beijing.

Only 15% of Europeans believe that the EU is engaged in a Cold War against China. The percentage is so low that one wonders if there should even be such a question. It is not only not a priority, it is not even a question on the agenda for Europeans. Even at the highest point of EU “hawkishness”, only 33% of Swedes hold the view that their country is currently in a Cold War with China.  Leonard and Krastev warn that if Washington and Brussels are preparing for an all-in generational struggle against China, this runs against the grain of opinion in Europe, and leaders in Washington and Brussels will quickly discover that they “do not have a societal consensus behind them”.

“The European public thinks there is a new cold war – but they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Our polling reveals that a “cold war” framing risks alienating European voters”, Mark Leonard said.

The EU doesn’t have the backing of its citizens to follow the US in its new Cold War pursuit. But unlike the views of the authors of the study, my view is that this is not a transatlantic rift that we actually have to be trying to fix. Biden’s China policy won’t be Europe’s China policy, and that’s that, despite US efforts to persuade Europe to follow, as I’ve argued months ago for the Brussels Report and in Modern Diplomacy.

In March this year, Gallup released a poll that showed that 45% of Americans see China as the greatest US enemy. The poll did not frame the question as Cold War but it can be argued that Joe Biden has some mandate derived from the opinion of American people. That is not the case for Europe at all, to the extent that most of us don’t see “China as an enemy” even as a relevant question.

The US’s China pursuit is already giving horrible for the US results in Europe, as French President Macron withdrew the French Ambassador to the US. The US made a deal already in June, as a part of the trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia, and stabbed France in the back months ago to Macron’s last-minute surprise last week. Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that it is Macron that is actually arrogant to expect that commitments and deals should mean something: “Back in February, Macron rejected the idea of a U.S.-E.U. common front against China. Now he complains when America pursues its own strategy against China. What’s French for chutzpah?” What Boot does get right is that indeed, there won’t be a joint US-EU front on China, and European citizens also don’t want this, as the recent poll has made clear.

The US saying Europe should follow the US into a Cold War with China over human rights is the same thing as China saying that Europe should start a Cold War with the US over the bad US human rights record. It’s not going to happen. You have to understand that this is how ridiculous the proposition sounds to us, Europeans. Leonard and Krastev urge the EU leadership to “make the case for more assertive policies” towards China around European and national interests rather than a Cold War logic, so that they can sell a strong, united, and compelling case for the future of the Atlantic alliance to European citizens.

I am not sure that I agree, as “more assertive policies” and “cold war” is probably the same thing in the mind of most Europeans and I don’t think that the nuance helps here or matters at all. Leaders like Biden argue anyway that the US is not really pursuing a Cold War. The authors caution EU leaders against adopting a “cold war” framing. You say “framing”, I say “spin”. Should we be in engaging in spins at all to sell unnecessary conflict to EU citizens only to please the US?

Unlike during the first cold war, [Europeans] do not see an immediate, existential threat”, Leonard clarified. European politicians can no longer rely on tensions with China to convince the electorate of the value of transatlantic relations. “Instead, they need to make the case from European interests, showing how a rebalanced alliance can empower and restore sovereignty to European citizens in a dangerous world”, Mark Leonard added. The study shows that there is a growing “disconnect” between the policy ambitions of those in Brussels and how Europeans think. EU citizens should stick to their sentiments and not be convinced to look for conflict where it doesn’t exist, or change what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears in favor of elusive things like the transatlantic partnership, which the US itself doesn’t believe in anyways. And the last thing that should be done is to scare Europeans by convincing them they live in a “dangerous world” and China is the biggest threat or concern.

What the study makes clear is that a Cold War framing against China is likely to repel more EU voters than it attracts, and if there is one thing that politicians know it is that you have to listen to the polls in what your people are telling you instead of engaging in spins. Those that don’t listen in advance get the signs eventually. At the end of the day it’s not important what Biden wants.

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Germany and its Neo-imperial quest

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In January 2021, eight months ago, when rumours about the possibility of appointment of Christian Schmidt as the High Representative in Bosnia occurred for the first time, I published the text under the title ‘Has Germany Lost Its NATO Compass?’. In this text I announced that Schmidt was appointed to help Dragan Čović, the leader of the Croatian HDZ party, to disrupt the constitutional structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina and create precoditions for secession of the Serb- and Croatian-held territories in Bosnia and the country’s final dissolution. I can hardly add anything new to it, except for the fact that Schmidt’s recent statements at the conference of Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft have fully confirmed my claims that his role in Bosnia is to act as Čović’s ally in the latter’s attempts to carve up the Bosnian Constitution.

Schmidt is a person with a heavy burden, the burden of a man who has continuously been promoting Croatian interests, for which the Croatian state decorated him with the medal of “Ante Starčević”, which, in his own words, he “proudly wears” and shares with several Croatian convicted war criminals who participated in the 1992-1995 aggression on Bosnia, whom Schmidt obviously perceives as his ideological brethren. The question is, then, why Germany appointed him as the High Representative in Bosnia? 

Germany’s policy towards Bosnia, exercised mostly through the institutions of the European Union, has continuously been based on the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. The phrases that we can occassionaly hear from the EU, on inviolability of state boundaries in the Balkans, is just a rhetoric adapted to the demands by the United States to keep these boundaries intact. So far, these boundaries have remained intact mainly due to the US efforts to preserve them. However, from the notorious Lisbon Conference in February 1992 to the present day, the European Union has always officially stood behind the idea that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be partitioned along ethnic lines. At the Lisbon Conference, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, the official representatives of the then European Community, which has in the meantime been rebranded as the European Union, drew the maps with lines of ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along which the ethnic cleansing was committed, with 100.000 killed and 1,000.000 expelled, so as to make its territory compatible with their maps. Neither Germany nor the European Union have ever distanced themselves from the idea they promoted and imposed at the Lisbon Conference as ‘the only possible solution’ for Bosnia, despite the grave consequences that followed. Nor has this idea ever stopped being a must within their foreign policy circles, as it has recently been demonstrated by the so-called Janša Non-Paper, launched a couple of months ago, which also advocates the final partition and dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such a plan is probably a product of the powerful right-wing circles in the European institutions, such as Schmidt’s CSU, rather than a homework of Janez Janša, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, whose party is a part of these circles, albeit a minor one. To be sure, Germany is not the original author of the idea of Bosnia’s partition, this author is Great Britain, which launched it directly through Lord Carrington at the Lisbon Conference. Yet, Germany has never shown a will to distance itself from this idea, nor has it done the European Union. Moreover, the appointment of Schmidt, as a member of those political circles which promote ethnic partition as the only solution for multiethnic countries, testifies to the fact that Germany has decided to fully apply this idea and act as its chief promoter.

In this process, the neighbouring countries, Serbia and Croatia, with their extreme nationalist policies, can only act as the EU’s proxies, in charge for the physical implemenation of Bosnia’s pre-meditated disappearance. All the crimes that Serbia and Croatia committed on the Bosnian soil – from the military aggression, over war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, up to the 30 year-long efforts to undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – have always had a direct approval and absolute support of the leading EU countries. During the war and in its aftermath, Great Britain and France were the leaders of the initiatives to impose ethnic partition on the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now Germany has taken up their role. In such a context, the increasing aggressiveness of Serbia and Croatia can only be interpreted as a consequence of the EU’s intention to finish with Bosnia for good, and Schmidt has arrived to Bosnia to facilitate that process. Therefore, it is high time for the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina to abandon any ilussions about the true intentions of the European Union and reject its Trojan Horse in the form of the current High Representative.  

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Should there be an age limit to be President?

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The presidential elections in Bulgaria are nearing in November 2021 and I would like to run for President of Bulgaria, but the issue is the age limit.

To run for President in Bulgaria a candidate needs to be at least 40 years old and I am 37. I am not the first to raise the question: should there be an age limit to run for President, and generally for office, and isn’t an age limit actually age discrimination?

Under the international human rights law standard, putting an age limit is allowed in the context of political participation under the right to vote and the right to run to be elected. Human Rights Committee General Comment No.25 interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that an age limit has to be based on objective and reasonable criteria, adding that it is reasonable to have a higher age requirement for certain offices. As it stands, the law says that having an age limit for president is not age discrimination, but is 40 actually a reasonable cut-off? National legislations can change. We need to lower the age limit and rethink what’s a reasonable age for President, and not do away with all age limits.

We have seen strong leaders emerge as heads of state and government who are below 40 years of age. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, became Prime Minister at 34. Sebastrian Kurz, the Prime Minister of Austria, was elected at 31. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, assumed her position at 37. So perhaps it is time to rethink age limits for the highest offices.

The US has plenty of examples where elected Senators and Congressmen actually beat the age limit and made it despite the convention. The age limit for Senator in the US is 30 years old. Rush Holt was elected to the US Senate at 29. In South Carolina, two State Senators were elected at 24 years old and they were seated anyways. The age limit for US president is 35 years old.

In Argentina, the age cut-off is 30. In India, it is 35. In Pakistan, it is 45 years old. In Turkey, it is 40 years old. Iceland says 35 years old. In France, it is 18.

Generally, democracies set lower age limits. More conservative countries set the age limit higher in line with stereotypes rather than any real world evidence that a 45 year-old or 55 year-old person would be more effective and better suited to the job. Liberal countries tend to set lower age limits.

40 years old to be a President of Bulgaria seems to be an arbitrary line drawn. And while it is legal to have some age limits, 40 years old seems to be last century. Changing the age limit for president of Bulgaria could be a task for the next Bulgarian Parliament for which Bulgarians will also vote on the same date as they vote for President.

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