The dangerous dance with Kern, Kurz and Strache

The image alone must have sent a shiver through the souls of decent chardonnay socialists, to see their chieftain consorting with the Klassenfeind (archenemy). Yet in July 2016 Christian Kern, freshly minted chancellor and chairman of the ruling Social Democrats (SPÖ) did indeed invite the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) H.C. Strache to his office on Ballhausplatz to meet, as equals – auf Augenhöhe – unthinkable in a party that had long ruled out cooperation with the right wing FPÖ. 

This was sacrilege!

Perhaps, but also smart realpolitik. Kern clearly believed that the mass migration of traditional socialist voters to the FPÖ was, in part, the stubborn refusal of SPÖ grandees to engage with Strache, belittling their main concern: the rising flood of foreigners. H.C. had, after all, successfully styled himself as the last crusader with his striking blue eyes holding back the Islamic masses.  So after supporting Angela Merkel’s overly-generous Willkommenspolitik, Kern’s move made sense. If it wasn’t too late.

The FPÖ is now ahead in the polls and could emerge from the federal elections on October 15 as the strongest fraction, denying even a coalition of the two traditional parties.

Kern’s coalition partner, the conservative ÖVP, has also been dramatically restructured. Chairman Reinhold Mitterlehner resigned abruptly, opening the way for the young shooting star Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. He had already established his own crusader credentials by sealing off the flow of asylum seekers along the Western Balkan route, even calling for a headscarf ban. Leveraging his huge personal popularity, he got carte blanche to run the party as he wished, bypassing the regional power brokers.  The federal elections will now be brought forward to October this year. The battle lines are clear.

The fourth key player is the mild-mannered president, Alexander Van der Bellen. In his campaign he pledged never to invite Strache to form a government, even if his party gained the most seats. This is his constitutional right, but to ignore the strongest fraction conflicts with common sense.

And while Kern himself might be prepared to engage with the FPÖ, the internal party bloodletting would be horrific. Even the conservative ÖVP were hesitant. They remember 2000, as Wolfgang Schüssel did just that: Press photos of then President Thomas Klestil’s icy countenance doing his reluctant duty went around the world; minutes later the freshly sworn in ministers had to leave by an underground passage to avoid angry street protests.

Internationally, Austria is for many still a dormant ghost of fascism, and any flicker of right-wing politics sparks acidic comment. In 2000, Austria was formally sanctioned by the EU 14. And corruption cases against that government are still wending their way through the courts.

A successful result for Kurz’s rejuvenated ÖVP could result in 25–30 percent for each of the major parties. The elephant in the room is the coalition question. The remorseless arithmetic of a parliamentary majority demands a coalition. So now what?

We must consider what is best for the Republic, without the haze of longstanding party loyalties. A continuation of SPÖ and ÖVP means a continuation of the bickering logjams no one wants. But an SPÖ and FPÖ partnership would rip the already fragmented SPÖ apart, leaving the great reform party of Bruno Kreisky gutted for a generation.

That leaves us with an ÖVP and FPÖ coalition, that would legitimize the political lepers, longer-term outcome uncertain. Still, this combination is working well enough in regional government, so perhaps this is the moment to give it a try. Kurz and Strache, two good looking young fellas hand in hand, knives permanently whetted behind their backs.

It won’t be boring.