New Austrian Conservative-Green government doubles down on anti-immigration, anti-Islam stance

Sebastian Kurz, Austrian Chancellor and leader of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has pulled off a remarkable political feat: having governed in a coalition with the far-right nationalists of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) since 2017, he has not only emerged unscathed from the rubble of his ÖVP-FPÖ government, which collapsed amidst a corruption scandal. After winning the 2019 parliamentary elections, he has also managed to form a new government – this time around with the centre-left Green Party as his junior partner.

Balance sheet of the previous Kurz-led ÖVP-FPÖ government

Kurz had abruptly ended his 18-month dalliance with the FPÖ in the wake of the so-called ‘Ibiza affair’: in May 2019, a video was published showing then-FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache on the Spanish island in the run-up to the 2017 Austrian elections. Strache and his aide can be seen meeting a woman pretending to be the niece of a Russian oligarch with connections to powerful circles in Moscow. Not realising they were being set up, the FPÖ politicians were caught on tape promising advantageous government contracts and the sale of important players in the Austrian economy to the Russians in return for positive press coverage designed to sway the election in the FPÖ’s favour. Strache and his aide also discuss ways to obtain illegal campaign financing and to bring independent media outlets under government control.

Programmatically speaking, the Kurz-led ÖVP-FPÖ government had been defined by its promise of a rightward shift in identity politics. Hence, it quickly proceeded to cut back on social services and financial aid for immigrants; subsequently it mulled compulsory registration for the country’s Jewish and Muslim inhabitants; and it introduced a ‘hijab ban’ in kindergartens and primary schools.

All this was accompanied by a constant barrage of racist invective against immigrants and Muslims, emanating in particular from the FPÖ party. FPÖ politicians compared immigrants to rats1 or sang anti-Semitic songs celebrating Nazi atrocities2. The party’s linkages to the Identitarian movement also came under scrutiny, particularly after connections between the Christchurch mosque attacker and the Austrian Identiarians became public.3

Continuity of hard-right themes

Kurz’ current shift from governing with the hard right to an alliance with the centre-left might be seen as a particularly successful example of political shape shifting on his part. To a certain extent this is true: in recent days, an old video of a younger Kurz speaking about immigration and Islam resurfaced on social media. In it, Kurz castigates his political opponents for their “populism” and their lack of a “bigger vision” for Austria: “It’s not always about headscarf yes or no, minaret yes or no, or burqa yes or no”, Kurz can be heard asserting.

Today, however, Kurz’ political strategy is exactly about these issues, and the answer is always a resounding ‘no’. This was true when Kurz was governing with the FPÖ; and it remains the case as he starts his second term with the support of the Greens. In fact, the switch from a far-right to a nominally centre-left coalition partner did not involve another dramatic redefinition of Kurz’ political programme. Rather, the coalition agreement that forms the basis for the new Austrian government is marked by its continuity with the previous hard-right ÖVP-FPÖ alliance.

To be sure, when presenting the agreement to its party base, the Green Party leadership stressed that, over the course of long-winded coalition negotiations, it had managed to detoxify significant parts of the ÖVP’s programme in the areas of immigration and security. Yet the biggest selling point was that the party would be able to implement more ambitious environmental policies.4 Indeed, the coalition treaty commits Austria to 100 per cent renewable energies by 2030 and to carbon neutrality by 2040 – the latter date ten years ahead of the EU-given deadline.5

Greens assent to anti-immigration, anti-Islam stance

Yet to many on the left of the Green Party, the agreement contained many bitter pills to swallow. A number of delegates at the party convention called to approve the coalition deal voiced their dissent. According to them, their party is guilty of selling out to the ÖVP: “the racist and exclusionary course in the area of migration is continuing, the authoritarian transformation keeps advancing in many areas – and is given a green veneer in matters of climate and the environment.”6

Indeed, Austrian newspaper Der Standard observed that Kurz’ ÖVP seemed to have triumphed over the Greens in the negotiations: while the conservatives conceded on climate action, these commitments remain somewhat nebulous so far, with significant parts of the government’s environmental programme to be worked out later.

Conversely, the coalition agreement hammers out some of the ÖVP’s most cherished policy items in a fairly concrete manner. This includes a hijab ban for female students under the age of 14; the introduction of special language schooling for ‘foreign children’ (Ausländerkinder), who are to be segregated from their ‘Austrian’ peers; as well as the ‘preventive security custody’ (präventive Sicherungshaft) imposed on ‘dangerous’ asylum seekers without any court procedure simply at the request of executive authorities.7

The case of this preventive custody is particularly instructive in highlighting the political continuities from the ÖVP-FPÖ to the new ÖVP-Green government: initially proposed by the far-right FPÖ last year, the Greens had at the time decried these plans as signalling “the end of human rights in Austria”. Fast forward to early 2020, however, and the Green Party has endorsed them as part of their governing programme.8

Looming spectre of informal ÖVP-FPÖ coalition on immigration, identity

The fact that Green and Conservative negotiators built a kind of ‘escape clause’ into their coalition agreement is reflective of some of the irreconcilable differences in questions of immigration and identity: should ÖVP and Greens fail to come to an inner-coalition agreement on policy measures designed to deal with “special challenges in the area of migration and asylum”, both parties reserve themselves the right to find a parliamentary majority outside the government coalition.9

In practice, this means that the ÖVP has managed to reserve itself the right to push through hard-line legislative changes on immigration with the help of the FPÖ. Yet it is to be expected that the FPÖ will not give its support without exacting a heavy price in return. This raises the spectre that, even as the far-right has formally exited the Austrian government, it will still be able to set its agenda.

Conversely, given the current right-wing majority in the Austrian parliament, there are no possibilities for the Greens to build an extra-governmental legislative coalition to implement their own political agenda in ways unhindered by the ÖVP. Thus, the ‘escape clause’ is a decidedly one-sided affair to the ÖVP’s benefit. Yet the clause does protect Green party leaders: they cannot be forced to assent to immigration policies too odious to their base – which will allow them to remain in government together with the ÖVP even as the Austrian conservatives continue their seemingly inexorable drift to the right.

New government swiftly expands the ‘hijab ban’

The Greens nevertheless ratified the agreement on January 4, 2020, with 93 per cent of delegates casting their vote in favour of joining the ÖVP-led coalition. Many commentators were surprised by such a strong show of support – many had speculated whether the Green base could end up rejecting the deal, preventing the new government from taking office. Yet given the seeming impossibility of a left-wing majority in Austria for the foreseeable future, many delegates apparently concluded that a governing arrangement with the Conservatives represented the only shot at power.

In the following days, the government – frequently termed the turquoise-green coalition, in accordance with the two parties’ official colours – assumed office. Among its first policy initiatives was the expansion of Austria’s ‘hijab ban’: introduced in 2018 for kindergartens and primary schools, the new government will expand it to cover (or, rather, uncover) all schoolgirls under the age of 14. Sebastian Kurz justified this measure as a step to “protect young girls” from the effects of immigration.10

Can Gülcü, Vienna-based creative and recent co-founder of a new left-wing party aiming to contest Vienna’s local elections later this year, sardonically commented that “finally Kemalism is in power in Austria as well”.

Austrian Muslims under pressure

The fact that the expansion of the anti-hijab legislation was chosen as the new government’s first high profile legislative project points to the pressures that Austrian Muslims will be under in the coming years.

Ümit Vural, president of the Islamic Faith Community in Austria (IGGÖ), expressed his “disappointment” at the coalition government’s priorities. He noted that a novel Ministry of Integration had been created, tasked (in the wording of the coalition deal) with “the fight against parallel societies and political Islam”. The underlying logic of the government approach to Austrian Muslims was thus one of suspicion and control, Vural highlighted. This would affect the ability of mosques, Islamic foundations and associations to continue to offer religious services, Vural asserted.

From the perspective of the IGGÖ, the involvement of the Greens in the new government does not represent an improvement over the previous ÖVP-FPÖ coalition: “unfortunately the anti-discrimination politics of the Greens, which had been taken-for-granted and genuine so far, is not represented in the government’s programme. To the contrary: the political agitation against minorities seems to be carried forward unabashedly.”11

Cautious Jewish optimism

Yet not all religious minorities are necessarily in the same tight spot vis-à-vis the new government. The Jewish community will, perhaps most notably, breathe a sigh of relief: after it had been on the receiving and of the FPÖ’s anti-Semitism – the party was, after all, founded by former Nazi functionaries and SS officers – the turquoise-green coalition promises to focus their discriminatory gaze on Muslims only.

Austria’s largest Jewish congregation, the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien, issued a press release welcoming what it termed a “coalition of the political centre”. Its President Oskar Deutsch lauded the “readiness for compromise, orientation towards the future, and the unrelenting dedication” of ÖVP and Greens, as well as the new government’s commitment to the fight against extremism and the support of Israel.12

Writing for the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper, Austrian journalist Alexia Weiss thus praised the “ambitious programme” of the turquoise-green government. She particularly lauded the plan to create what the coalition treaty terms a “research and documentation centre for anti-Semitism, for religiously motivated political extremism (political Islam), and for racism in the 21st century”.13

Ecologist nationalism – a blueprint beyond Austria?

German journalist Samira El Ouassil highlighted what appeared to be the central rationale behind the new Austrian government, expressed by Chancellor Kurz’ statement that “it is possible to protect both the climate and the borders”. For El Ouassil, the implied complementarity between ecologism and nationalism amounts to “already the most perfidious sentence of 2020”.

Indeed, the new Austrian “national-ecological patchwork” that allows Sebastian Kurz to “continue his staunchly right-wing populist course, plus an eco-bonus appropriate to the contemporary zeitgeist” has elicited attention from beyond the alpine republic.14

In Germany, where a conservative-green coalition has been tried out at local and regional levels and is seen by many as the desirable outcome of the next federal elections, many commentators hailed the turquoise-green agreement in Vienna as an important milestone. The German Green Party leadership – perhaps mindful of the need to sell its skin to the conservatives as dearly as possible – was more lukewarm in its reactions, stressing that the new Austrian coalition was “not a blueprint” for Germany.15

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