It is not all quiet on the Eastern front. Two important central European states, Austria and the Czech Republic, just held their parliamentary elections, and both saw a sharp rise in the popularity of far-right parties. The Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) in Czech Republic, in its first-ever election, won 10.6 percent of the vote, while in Austria, the Freedom Party won 26 percent.
Interestingly, despite the rise of the populists, the winners of the elections were not the populists, but two eccentric right-wing candidates: the Austrian Sebastian Kurz and the Czech Andrej Babis. The former, at only 31-years-old, led the People’s Party of Austria to its third win since 1970, with 32 percent. The latter, a well-known billionaire and the second-richest man in the Czech Republic, founded his party five years ago and won 30 percent of the vote, far ahead of all rivals.
Their successes offer roadmaps to power for the European right but also tremendous responsibilities for their new governments. If they fail to deal with the rising—and often legitimate—concerns of the European people on “identity” issues—radical Islam, immigration etc.—the issues could be dealt with by some deeply unsavory politicians.
Poll after poll record a rising rejection of mass immigration. In February 2016, a poll recorded that out of ten major European countries, including Germany and France, eight had a majority determined to stop “all further immigration from mainly Muslim countries,” while 65 percent of Austrians agreed.
While both elected politicians took shots at Brussels during their campaign, especially on immigration issues, they were careful to temper their euro-skepticism and instead focused on maintaining European “identity.” The EU may be widely harangued, but a significant number of voters still remain worried about actually taking the leap of leaving the EU (and the Eurozone, in the case of Austria).
This is a lesson for the European right. The economy has become so technical and the left-right divide on the economy so murky that the economy cannot be a clear deciding factor anymore, unless politicians propose a bold move such as leaving the EU. Had Marine Le Pen in France run a less hostile campaign against the EU, she probably would have garnered a significantly larger share of the electorate.
The immigration backlash will not go away. The speed of cultural transformation in Western Europe deeply worries Europeans. This is why politicians need to act seriously on these issues. Austria’s Kurz did. In 2015, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Kurz pushed the reform to Austria’s 1912 Islam Law regulating Muslim worship. The law now forbids foreign funding of mosques, guarantees that imams speak German, and establishes the primacy of Austrian legislation over religious requirements. Yet it also enshrined a wide range of rights on worship, dietary prescriptions, and religious holidays. While the legislation was dubbed extreme by many press groups, it had the backing of the French centrist Institut Montaigne, a think tank known for its serious research on the integration of Muslim communities.
However, if right-wing politicians exploit the golden goose of anti-immigration discourse and do not follow through their ambitious plans, we could be in for a major populist backlash. Nicolas Sarkozy, in his successful 2007 presidential campaign, successfully co-opted that anti-establishment sentiment from the National Front (FN) but, once in power, utterly failed to act upon it. As a result, support for the FN leapt from 10 percent in 2007 to 18 percent in 2012 and kept rising for years after that. If Kurz fails to handle the issue, we might end up seeing the far-right Freedom Party deal with it, a party whose leader wants “zero and minus immigration” as well as a ban on Islamic symbols. For the sake of European Muslims, let’s hope the Kurzes of Europe deal with the issue before we come to that extreme