Austria’s ruling Social Democrats are responding to rising anti-establishment sentiment in a way that would be unthinkable in most European nations, by moving towards lifting a self-imposed ban on coalitions with the far-right Freedom Party.
The FPÖ now regularly tops Austrian opinion polls with support of more than 30%, surpassing even levels seen around 2000 when it entered a national coalition that lasted for several years.
To form a government, they would most likely need to continue an unpopular alliance with the conservative People’s Party or start a new one with the FPÖ. With that in mind, the Social Democrats are drawing up a list of conditions that any coalition partner would have to meet, which would effectively end the ban put in place 30 years ago.
Such broad principles are unlikely to prevent a coalition with the FPÖ. In 2000, the preamble to a coalition pact between the FPÖ and the People’s Party voiced support for the EU and human rights to allay similar concerns.
Within three years support for the FPÖ had halved as internal disputes grew, and FPÖ leaders including the charismatic Jörg Haider later left the fold.
The fact the FPÖ has been in national government before and has been a prominent feature of the Austrian political landscape for decades makes talk of a possible coalition slightly less toxic than it would be for similar parties in other countries.
Polls still suggest that France’s Marine Le Pen will be soundly defeated in next month’s presidential run-off, and it would be taboo for the centre-left Socialist Party to consider a coalition with the National Front.
In contrast with those countries, two centrist parties have dominated Austrian politics for the past 70 years, often governing together in coalition.
SPÖ Chancellor Christian Kern’s government is implementing several law-and-order measures meant to eat into FPÖ support, including a ban on Muslim face-covering veils and a tightening of immigration rules.
At the same time, he has taken steps towards treating the FPÖ like any other party, including taking part in a radio debate with its leader last November.
The FPÖ says it is open to forming coalitions with all parties, including the SPÖ. Within the SPÖ debate continues to rage on whether doing business with the FPÖ is a price worth paying for power.
“What is the point of being in the government if we then implement FPÖ policies?” said Julia Herr, head of Socialist Youth, a left-wing group connected to the party, who wants more specific criteria, like support for a wealth tax.
Original story: Austrian Socialists consider ending ban on far-right alliances