Novel Alliance Forms in Austria: Conservatives and Greens

(CN) — Austrian political leader Sebastian Kurz, one of Europe’s youngest and most closely-watched conservatives, is seeking a new political formula for staying in power: He’s joining forces with the left-wing Greens only months after his first government coalition with a far-right party fell apart.

Sebastian Kurz, head of the Austrian People’s Party, speaks to journalists during a press conference on Nov. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

A coalition between Kurz’s center-right People’s Party with the Greens is being held up as a possible blueprint for other European countries to follow, notably Germany. The Greens have never held power at the national level in Austria.

On Thursday, Kurz and the Greens presented a government program that includes an odd potpourri of ultraconservative and pro-environment priorities.

Kurz, who rose to prominence advocating anti-immigrant policies, is proposing to ban Muslim headscarves in schools, detaining asylum-seekers deemed a risk and cutting taxes. The Greens are looking to raise taxes on vehicles that emit a lot of greenhouse gases, such as trucks and airplanes, and bringing more transparency into government.

Kurz called the coalition “the best of both worlds” and said it shows that a government can both “protect borders and the climate.” He said it was proof that “it is possible to reduce the tax burden and green the tax system.”

“Somebody once said that Austria is the test tube of European politics; what happens there tends to follow elsewhere,” said Matthew Goodwin, a University of Kent politics professor and author, in an analysis.

He called the conservative-green coalition fascinating because few conservative parties have “adapted yet to the new politics of climate change.”

“Kurz once again looks to be ahead of the curve,” he said.

Alberto Alemanno, a law professor at the HEC Paris business school, said this “unconventional and improbable” coalition “will go down in history as a major political experiment.”

“It will put to test the Greens’ ideological consistency,” he said on Twitter. “It will challenge the right-wing inherent status quo bias.”

German commentators saw it as a possible indication of where German political trends may go.

“It is clear that politics at the moment needs to include strong green impulses,” the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel said. “Austria may be at the forefront of efforts to develop a modern, up-to-date policy.”

Germany’s political dynamics are similar to those in Austria and a rise in far-right sentiment and support for Green parties have defined the political discourse in both countries in recent years. People are flocking to far-right parties to stop immigration and to Green parties to halt global warming.

The Greens made significant gains in Austrian elections in September, which were won by Kurz and his People’s Party. Green parties also did well in elections in Germany last year, to the detriment of Germany’s traditional center-left force, the Social Democrats. The Social Democrats are sinking in Austria too.

Kurz’s experiment in government with the Greens — announced Wednesday and formally presented to the Austrian president Thursday — will be closely watched in Germany, where a long-running coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Social Democrats is deeply strained and viewed as an outdated centrist model that is hurting both sides.

Kurz and the leader of Austria’s Greens, Werner Kogler, are expected to begin governing by Monday, barring an unlikely negative vote on Saturday by Green members on the deal.

Under their agreement, Kurz will retain the chancellorship and his party will hold 11 of 15 ministries. The Greens will take over four ministries and Kogler will be designated vice chancellor. The Greens will control ministries overseeing the environment, infrastructure, energy and transportation. The Greens also will get the government to pledge studying ways to tax carbon emissions and to provide subsidies for public transportation.

Kogler said he hoped this government will make Austria a world leader on climate change.

At just 33, Kurz is considered one of the brightest stars in worldwide conservative circles. He raised eyebrows in late 2017 when he chose to form a government with the far-right Freedom Party and pushed ahead with nationalist, pro-business and anti-immigrant policies.

That coalition fell apart after the Freedom Party’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught on video attempting to trade government contracts for campaign support from a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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