Ohio State University

Trusting the Austrian System by Ron Fornaro @ Ohio State University


On Monday, March 12th, 2018 an Austrian court struck down a law that would have taken away the rights of refugees and other migrant groups to receive health care and other benefits[1].  This move shows that the state of democracy in Austria is much stronger than many news sources would have you believe[2].

The coalition of the center-right New People’s Party and the far right Austrian Freedom Party (AFP) has caused mass panic in Europe.  The fear is that Austria’s democracy will erode, and Austria will become a hybrid regime.

These fears go beyond Austrian borders.  Recent actions in Hungary, Poland, Italy, France, and other European countries have made populism a newspaper headline for the last few years, putting Europe on edge.

However, while there has been a stagnation and decline of democracy in some European countries, Austria should not be considered one.  Rather Austria should be used as an example of why the E.U. should end its heavy-handed approach, and allow the states to deal with populism.

Austrian Backsliding

While headlines may make it seem like Austria is being run by the far right the leading party is actually a center-right party[3].  This center-right party has at times governed with the center-left party, and until recently was not considered populist.

The rumors of populism in the center-right began to arise when Sebastian Kurz took a leadership position in the party and began incorporating ideas into the platform that were interpreted as populist talking points.  Criticism of the E.U. and its policy on refugees and migrants took the forefront in Austria and much of Europe.  Kurz channeled these views in the party’s new platform, seemingly aligning himself more with the populists.

Banning the full face Burka, forming a coalition with the AFP, and attempting to cut back on Austria’s migrant quotas and services all seem to support the idea that Austria is falling quickly to the populist right.  While this is a troubling trend in most of Europe it is by no means a death sentence for Austrian democracy.

Austrian Democracy

Freedom House’s ranking of the level of democracy in Austria went down one point due to the Burka ban and a ban on the funding of Islamic schools abroad.  This drop caused Austria to have a rank of 94/100 in terms of its level of democracy, which is still extremely high[4].  The claim that Austria is in danger of erosion seems a bit more like an attention-grabbing headline than a reflection of a political reality.  This is especially true when compared to Hungary (72) and Poland (85).

The strength and independence of the Austrian court system is a specific example of the state of their democracy.  Douglas Gibler and Kirk Randazzo show that an independent judiciary is an important tool for halting the erosion of democracy[5].  By striking down the previously mentioned law, the Austrian court system has shown that they are willing to stand against the more extreme goals of the populists.

Paradoxically, there is hope for Austrian democracy in its new leader.  Kurz is by no means a classic European conservative, but to claim he is of the same ideological class as the AFP would be an exaggeration.  Though he was unhappy with the result Kurz did not choose to defy the court’s ruling and pursue the policy anyways.

Contrary to many people’s fears, Kurz has pledged his support for the E.U. and believes a strong Austria and a strong Europe are two sides of the same coin[6].

The moves he has made toward populism have not been as extreme as those of the openly hostile populist leader of Hungary, Viktor Orbàn, to whom he is often falsely compared[7].  Rather, Kurz’s political moves so far are an attempt to bridge the gap between populists and conservatives in Austria.

The state of democracy in Austria, when looked at from above, is as healthy as many other Western European countries. The cracks that do appear when one looks closer are not cause for serious concern given the strength of the institutions, and the promise of its new leader.

A Chance for Resolution

Austria can actually be a source of hope for democracy in Europe when dealing with populist ideas.  The only real danger to democracy comes if the European Union decides to not take advantage of Austria’s interesting position in between two opposing political sides.

In her book What Is Populism? Jan-Werner Muller argues, the best way to combat populist ideas is not stigmatizing them, but engaging with them[8].  Criticizing or censuring attempts to engage with populist ideas will only alienate countries and cause polarization.  This is the case for the continued criticism of Hungary which is only serving to further entrench the far right[9].  Milan Svolik believes that this increase in polarization would make the subversion of democracy much easier[10].  This would then allow internal state brakes against democratic erosion, like the courts or moderate leaders, to be weakened.

The E.U. should work through Austria to communicate with countries like Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia to develop a plan that everyone can agree on regarding the migrant crisis.  This act of compromise would slow polarization and therefore slow democratic erosion in these countries.  When the E.U. is no longer an enemy to rally around, the Eurosceptic populists lose a lot of their power to erode democracy.

The alternative to trusting the Austrian state is the E.U. condemning them as they did in 2000. The E.U. sanctioned Austria for allowing an extreme party to have a power role[11].  Action like this only strengthens populist parties and puts democracies in even more danger.


The idea that populists should be incorporated, as Austria is attempting to do is not to say that their ideas are valid.  Rather, it will appease populist movements and keep them within the confines of the democratic system. This would allow competent leaders and institutions to deal with them effectively, just like the courts in Austria dealt with the move to limit services for migrants and refugees.

Austrian democracy is strong enough to deal with the populist wave, but continued condemnation from the E.U. front will only serve to polarize and break down the institutions within Austria that check populism in the first place.  Working with populists should not be considered a death sentence for a democracy, but rather an alternative to drowning in a populist wave.

Image: By User:SKopp – Own work, http://www.bmlv.gv.at/abzeichen/dekorationen.shtml, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=342954

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