Anti-Refugee Sentiments in Central Europe

How Austria’s New Leader Came to Power

By Ashrita Rau

The 31 one-year old campaigned on closing Austria’s Borders and implementing other Far Right policies.

On Sunday October 15th, Austria elected 31 year old Sebastian Kurz to be its next chancellor. Kurz, who was appointed Foreign Minister of the country at age 27 (becoming the youngest person to ever hold the position) ran his campaign on a platform that advocated for the closing of Austria’s Borders. Kurz and his followers believe that the 90,000 refugees that arrived in Austria during the past two years have stolen social benefits that should have been given to Austrians, and his anti-refugee sentiment continues to gather increasing support.

The refugee crisis has caused problems in Austrian politics. In May of 2016, Chancellor Werner Faymann resigned suddenly due to tensions created by his refugee policies. At first a supporter of opening borders to refugees, Faymann changed positions after receiving criticisms from the right. However, his establishment of border fences and promise to crack down on refugees failed to do enough to please right-wing politicians and caused Faymann’s own party to view him as a turncoat, consequently prompting his resignation.

Kurz takes an even more hardline stance on refugees. During his term as Foreign Minister, he advocated for closing the Balkan route for refugees, pushed for a ban on burqas, and supported the idea that “immigrants should receive less state support for their children than native-born Austrians.” His campaign is infused with anti-Islamic sentiment, and many of its’ views echo that of the far-right Freedom Party, which was founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s.

The campaign that Kurz ran has been compared to that of Emmanuel Macron, who managed to win the presidency in France with the new political party En Marche! In contrast to Macron, however, Kurz did not create his own political party—he revamped an already existing party (The People’s Party) and branded it around himself just as much as around anti-migrant ideas. The new name of his political party is “The Sebastian Kurz list—the New People’s Party.”

Apparently a charismatic personality, Kurz found success by centering the political party around himself. 42% of the people who voted for the New People’s Party did so because of Kurz, as compared to only 7% of Freedom Party voters who voted for the party because of its’ leader (Stache) and 20% of Social Democrats who voted for their party because of Chancellor Christian Kern.

Kurz is a sign that the apparent rejections of far-right thinking demonstrated by the election of Macron over National Front leader Marine LePen and the failure of Geert Wilders to win the presidential election in the Netherlands may have been abnormalities. By using the refugee-crisis, far-right politicians are continuing to gain traction in Europe. The question now is whether or not Kurz will align with the Freedom Party or reject ideas of the Extreme Right and stick to a more centralist political agenda.

Ashrita Rau is a student at Tufts University.

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