Austrian political scandal leaves Europe’s conservatives in need of a new path

BERLIN – When Sebastian Kurz became Chancellor of Austria for the first time, the whole of Europe stood up. Only 31, he had turned the fortunes of his ailing conservative party and almost overnight became a role model for centre-right leaders elsewhere on the continent.

Four years later, Mr Kurz is forced to resign amid a criminal investigation into allegations that he used public money to manipulate opinion polls and that he paid a tabloid newspaper for favorable coverage.

Their downfall is unique to Austria, but it can resonate far and wide across Europe.

This comes at a time when Europe’s political landscape looks more fragmented and the once powerful traditional parties of the centre-left and centre-right have lost ground to many new political actors, not least in the extreme.

Young and media savvy, Mr Kurz introduced himself as a man who had the formula for how to preserve a huge center amid disruption. He adopted the anti-immigrant language of an ascendant and transformed his traditionally stable People’s Party into a political movement that attracted hundreds of thousands of new supporters.

“Why don’t we have one like that?” The German tabloid Bild mourned in October 2017.

But the recent allegations against him and a slew of evidence that has already been released suggest that the communication strategy that won him the Conservative vote at home and praise in conservative circles abroad is at best “deeply immoral” and at worst illegal. was, said Thomas Hofer, a longtime observer of European politics and an independent political advisor in Vienna.

“What we are seeing in Austria is the collapse of a new narrative for the conservative parties in Europe,” Mr Hofer said. “Internationally, the Kurz model was something that others viewed very closely as a possible answer to far-right populists.”

Across Europe, ailing traditional centre-right parties have struggled to reinvent themselves, sometimes flirting with the temptation to move from the right.

In neighboring Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who have ruled 52 of the past 72 years – 16 of the last – lost a landslide victory in last month’s election. It was his worst election result to date.

In France, where five out of eight presidents have been conservative since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the traditional centre-right has not won any national elections since 2007.

And in Italy, Christian Democrats co-ruled for nearly half a century after World War II, but the political right has become increasingly radical and fragmented over the past two decades.

One of the few successful centre-right leaders left in Western Europe is Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Britain – and he, like Mr Kurz, chose not only the nationalist anti-immigrant rhetoric of populists, but also their aggressively symbiotic relations Chosen. tabloids

Some analysts say recent events in Austria suggest that Mr Kurz’s political strategy is not a viable long-term strategy to revive centrist conservatism.

“Kurz is someone who has taken the traditional centre-right party, dragged it into populist mode and is now in big trouble,” said Timothy Garten Ashe, professor of European history at Oxford University.

One lesson, said Mr. Garten Ashe, is that The collapse of traditional catchall parties on both the right and the left is structural – and perhaps irreversible.

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

Across Europe, elections have revealed a more fragmented society, one that defies traditional political labeling.

For most of the post-war era, European countries had a large centre-left party and a large centre-right party. The centre-left parties supported a working class organized into powerful labor unions, while the centre-right mobilized a wide range of middle- and upper-class voters, from conservative church-goers to free-market business owners. It was not unusual for a camp to get 40 percent of the vote.

The Social Democratic parties lost that status some time ago. With union membership declining and parts of the traditional working-class constituency left centre-left, its vote share has dwindled since the early 2000s.

If the crisis of social democracy has been a familiar theme in the past decade, the crisis of conservatism is now on full display. Still, even though the old conservative parties have shrunk, many of their policies continue to dominate Europe, analysts say.

“If you look at Germany, France or Italy, it is not the classic centre-right conservatives who win elections or are in power, but the policies are traditionally centre-right,” said Dominic Mossi, a political scientist and senior adviser. said. Institut Montain in Paris.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron blew up the French party system by winning elections with his En Marche movement, but pro-European market liberals once considered centre-left have recently behaved increasingly right-wing.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has no party affiliation, but is seen as a centrist as the former president of the European Central Bank.

Even in Germany, where a Social Democrat won a modest victory in a recent election, the party’s candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, served as Ms. Merkel’s finance minister and in some ways compared her own party. I am more attached to his outgoing government.

“The clear division of left and right that dominate European politics has blurred and no longer really applies,” Mr Mossi said. “The extreme right is far more extreme. The centre-right is moving even more towards the center, and the classical left is either completely ripped off like France or fighting for survival with the Greens. And so you have There is a political landscape that is much more fragmented than before.”

This hasn’t stopped some prominent politicians from looking for ways to revive the past and look to Mr Kurz as a model.

Tilmann Kuban, leader of the youth wing of Germany’s conservatives, said days after his party’s disastrous electoral defeat, “You can see in Austria that Sebastian Kurz as a young conservative politician manages to be No. Is.”

Christoph Ploss, head of the Christian Democrats in Hamburg, also pointed to Austria as a “good example” of reviving conservatism. “Over there,” he said, “the Partner Party is back with a clear direction.”

Both men declined to comment when asked last week whether the allegations against Mr Kurz had changed their minds.

It is difficult to say exactly what Mr Kurz’s resignation meant. He resigned as chancellor on Saturday after his coalition partners, the Greens, said they could not continue ruling with him in light of the current allegations, and threatened a motion of no confidence. But he continues to be the leader of the party and an MLA in Parliament.

Some predict that even after his anointed successor and loyal ally, Foreign Minister Alexander Schellenberg, is sworn in as chancellor on Monday, Mr Kurz will still take the reins and may return at some point.

It wouldn’t be the first time he rediscovered himself.

Once a conservative youth leader who distributed condoms branded as a campaign and eventually earned a reputation as a liberal integration minister, Mr Kurz swung sharply to the right, winning elections and in alliance with the far-right Freedom Party. entered.

After his first government fell two years earlier, he won re-election and increased his party’s vote share even more. He then went into an unlikely alliance with the smallest Green Party.

In many ways, Mr Kurz is less representative of traditional conservatism and more typical of political opportunism associated with a new strain of right-wing politics that has developed in Europe in the space between the center-right of the old and the crop of noise. Far-right parties at the peak.

“The new right-wing politics that is about immigration and identity – that right-wing politics you see across Europe,” said Mr. Garten Ashe.

He said that even after the scandals in Austria, the temptation to move to the right is unlikely to disappear completely.

“Arguably the most dangerous populists are those that look the least like populists,” said Mr. Garten Ashe. “That’s true of Johnson, and the same was true of Kurz.”

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