The long Honeymoon of Austria’s right-wing alliance

Buoyed by healthy polls and a booming economy, Austria's right-wing coalition is riding high on an extended political honeymoon a year after joining forces to push their anti-immigration agenda.

The long Honeymoon of Austria's right-wing alliance
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache appear harmonious: Photo: Georg Hochmuth / APA / AFP
With the opposition weakened, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's centre-right People's Party (OeVP) and its far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) partner have suffered few domestic setbacks since being sworn in December 2017.
But the government has faced criticism abroad — notably for its perceived closeness to Russia — and it may yet face some roadblocks at home as divisions emerge and policies risk fraying support among the working-class part of its base.
Kurz's People's Party won 31.5 percent of the vote in last year's elections, but now scores around 35 percent in the opinion polls.
The Freedom Party, led by Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, has slipped only slightly from the 26 percent of the vote it won last year to around 24 percent.
“A real asset has been that they have been able to continue with their campaign messages in government,” said political analyst Thomas Hofer, in contrast to horse-trading that characterised previous right-left “grand 
The OeVP and FPOe have made harmony their watchword, as have Kurz and Strache.
At one press conference earlier this year where the duo were finishing each other's sentences, Strache said: “Even I'm surprised at how quickly and brilliantly we're working”.
“The effort that they've made to appear as united as possible is very popular with the public,” said political scientist Fritz Plasser.   
Kurz's polished style and the self-restraint shown by Strache have also helped the two men.
Part of that popularity is due to the economy. With growth of 3 percent expected for this year and one of the eurozone's lowest unemployment rates at 5.6 percent, the government rode a wave of European economic growth.
Despite generous tax break for families and pension rises, this year the government looks set to eliminate its budget deficit, a year earlier than planned.
Civil servants can also look forward to a pay rise of 2.8 percent, with most other workers receiving rises of more than 2.5 percent — even up to 3.5 percent for metalworkers.
Sacrificing values?
Anti-immigration rhetoric was a key part of the platform of both right-wing parties in last year's election and the government has been keen to live up to its promises.
Boycotting the UN's migration pact, increasing expulsions of rejected asylum seekers and cutting benefits for refugees — the government has rarely missed an opportunity to burnish its tough credentials. As the Kurier daily pointed out, many say the OeVP has “sacrificed its Christian-democratic values” along the way, as well as annoying some businesses who blame deportations for the loss of apprentices they need to plug labour shortages.
Since last year's election the opposition has struggled to be heard. The main opposition SPOe has also lacked unity, said Hofer, and was dealt a blow by the departure of its leader to run for European Parliament elections in May. Even a law extending the maximum working week to 60 hours (or 12 hours per 
day) didn't spark enough opposition to trouble the government.
Several thousand people take part in protests outside the Chancellor's office every Thursday and organisers plan an anti-government demonstration for Saturday in Vienna to mark the administration's first anniversary.
Hofer cautions the 12-hour workday reform “was not easily swallowed by the FPOe” due to its more working-class voter base, even if for now any disagreement in the alliance has been kept behind closed doors. 
From Russia with love
While at the top of the party, the FPOe's ministers have tried to present a professional image, there has been a steady supply of embarrassing stories about party members caught making sexist, anti-Semitic or racist remarks. And its ministers have not escaped criticism either.
Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, one of the party's chief ideologues, had barely been appointed when he sparked a row by saying he wanted to “concentrate” asylum-seekers, employing a word widely associated with Nazi 
Kickl is also at the centre of a row over raids on the BVT domestic intelligence agency in February during which numerous documents were seized, raising fears among Austria's Western partners about the possibility of leaks 
to Moscow.
The FPOe has a co-operation agreement with President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.
Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl — who is not a member of the FPOe but was nominated by the party — also raised eyebrows by inviting Putin to her wedding over the summer.
Images of her curtseying to the Russian leader and enjoying a waltz with him raised questions over her neutrality.
Closer to home though, the FPOe has cheered the emergence of similar populist movements in other parts of Europe and has enthusiastically echoed rhetoric used by nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban in neighbouring 
That has led to some of the rare awkward public moments for Kurz and Strache, with the chancellor distancing himself from his deputy.   
“Don't mistake harmony on the outside for harmony on the inside,” said Hofer. “The European elections will be a test for them, as obviously the two parties' messages will differ.”


How deportations of school kids are testing Austria’s ruling coalition

The deportation of three school students from Austria this week brought to the fore cracks in the country's ruling conservative-green coalition, with observers warning of further possible "stress tests" if and when the pandemic wanes.

How deportations of school kids are testing Austria's ruling coalition
Karl Nehammer. Photo: AFP

Despite a high-profile campaign to keep the students and their families in Austria, they were deported to Georgia and Armenia early on Thursday morning.

Dramatic scenes on Austria TV showed the students — aged between 12 and 20 — and their families being driven to the aircraft and police officers dragging protesters out of their path.

Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, from the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP), said he was “personally affected” by the girls’ plight.

SEE ALSO: Why Kurz now backs Merkel on rejection of far-right

But Green party politicians say Nehammer could have prevented the deportations and hit out at the OeVP, with the leader of the Green delegation of MPs, Sigrid Maurer, slamming Nehammer’s comments as “hypocrisy”.

Even President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green politician who normally remains above the day-to-day political fray, condemned the action, saying: “I cannot believe that we live in a country where this is really necessary.”

‘Extreme’ conflict

Analysts say the row shows how arguments that erupted shortly after the coalition government was sworn in last year, but which have taken a back seat during the pandemic, may now begin to return to the fore.

Under its leader, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the OeVP has made much of its tough stance on immigration, attracting voters from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) in the process.

By contrast, the Greens have been the most outspoken advocates of refugee rights in Austrian politics.

“The conflict with the Greens over migration is one of the most extreme you can find in terms of disparities within the political spectrum,” said Julia Partheymueller of Vienna University’s Centre for Electoral Research.

“If the pandemic is ever over, other issues will emerge,” said Partheymueller, adding that as “migration remains a very salient issue, I do think such rows will happen more frequently.”

Indeed, even in the earlier stages of the pandemic, the Greens found themselves overruled on issues surrounding migration.

The Greens made clear their wish to take in people from the sprawling, overcrowded and unsanitary migrant camp of Moria in Greece.

But Chancellor Kurz quashed the idea, promising instead to send aid to help “on the ground”.

Political analyst Thomas Hofer said that there was a danger of the OeVP “overdoing it” and being too harsh in its stance on migration.

“The Greens are being humiliated a little here,” he told AFP.

The party is facing “a stress test… It’s harming the DNA of the Green party,” he said.

‘Show they can deliver’

Even Green Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler, who has normally been at pains to smooth over any differences within government, branded the girls’ expulsions as “inhuman” and “irresponsible”.

Nevertheless, analyst Hofer said that, for the moment, “the Greens want to show that they can stay in government, that they can deliver”.

Another key issue was climate change, the expert said.

“This is I think the most important issue for them this coming year,” he said, pointing as an example to a proposed “greening” of the tax system.

Partheymueller suggested out that, with none of the larger parties taking a more liberal line than the Greens on immigration, disaffected Greens “have nowhere (else) to go.”

In the meantime, Green Health Minister Rudolf Anschober made the case for his party’s continued presence in government.

“We’re in government to try to contribute to making things better,” Anschober told the Puls24 TV station.

“That works on many days, on some days sadly it doesn’t. Thursday was one of those days,” he said.