Austrian chancellor gambles on far right's populist tactics

VIENNA (Reuters) - Four months after he took over a coalition government stunned by the far-right Freedom Party’s electoral success, Austria’s new chancellor has taken a populist turn, adopting positions remarkably close to those of his anti-immigration rivals.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern addresses the media in Vienna, Austria, June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

But Christian Kern’s new tactics, on Turkey joining the European Union and a trade deal with Canada, have yet to erode the Freedom Party’s lead in opinion polls. And trying to beat the anti-immigration party at its own game could backfire.

“He is trying to cast out the FPO demon by using Beelzebub, to put it biblically,” said political scientist Anton Pelinka. “He is trying to defeat the FPO by taking over its policies.”

Austria has attracted worldwide attention over its botched presidential election, in which a Freedom Party (FPO) candidate narrowly lost the runoff in May only for a re-run to be ordered, and for the re-run to later be delayed until December.

The FPO candidate could yet win and become the EU’s first far-right head of state. But while that campaign drags on, Chancellor Kern is preparing for a more important election, for parliament, and reaching for the FPO playbook.

As his centrist government returned to the sort of disputes that shredded its popularity under his predecessor and helped fuel the FPO’s rise, Kern unexpectedly suggested in August that the EU should break off accession talks with Turkey.

That proposal has fallen flat with other EU leaders, who would have to approve it, but it was a safe bet at home, where polls regularly show a large majority of voters oppose Turkey joining the EU, as does the Freedom Party.

He followed that up by conducting a survey of his Social Democratic Party’s (SPO) members on an EU trade deal with Canada, which was largely rejected by respondents and which he now opposes in its current form. FPO presidential candidate Norbert Hofer has long called for a referendum on any U.S. trade deal and now says the same about the Canadian pact.

“These are two issues where the chancellor can be certain that the majority of public opinion is behind him,” said political analyst Peter Filzmaier, adding that foreign policy was safer ground on which to take these stands.

He said foreign policy questions were less risky because Kern could blame other countries for any setbacks while on domestic policy he had to take responsibility as chancellor.


Another target of these forays appears to be Kern’s foreign minister, 30-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who is widely expected to take over the People’s Party (OVP), the junior coalition partner, before the next parliamentary election.

When that election will come is not clear -- the government’s term runs until 2018 but if the SPO and OVP cannot work together, a snap election will be held, and there has been much speculation about when that might happen.

Kurz, the foreign minister, and Kern have at times seemed to be trying to outbid each other in their criticism of the EU’s dealings with Turkey. Both are slick public speakers who are much more popular than their own parties.

That popularity could go some way towards explaining recent moves by Kern, including meeting members of the public in a tram and having his picture taken while jogging in New York with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

The aim is to use his popularity “in the hope that he pulls the party up before the party pulls him down”, Pelinka said.

Polls show FPO support at more than 30 percent, followed by Kern’s SPO in the mid-20s and the OVP on around 20 percent.

While opting for a more personal style, conveyed through social media channels that the Freedom Party has long dominated, seems relatively safe, moving towards the FPO’s policies is not without risk.

Kern says he opposes the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada particularly because it could allow companies to sue governments. But the deal has been negotiated and is due to be signed this month.

“If you go into an issue in a populist way, you also have to be prepared to take the last step,” political analyst Thomas Hofer said, calling Kern’s populist turn a “serious mistake”.

“The last step on this issue is not to sign (CETA). How he can solve that in October I don’t know,” Hofer said

And populism is a game best played when not in government.

“There is a level on which the FPO, as long as it is in opposition, will always be faster and more populist,” he added.

Editing by Giles Elgood