When Conservatives and Greens join hands

With the start of 2020, it became clear that a new government was going to come to power in Vienna soon. For the first time in Austria’s history, a coalition formed by the Conservatives and the Greens will rule the country. Elections took place last year after the previous government, consisting of the conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party, collapsed after a corruption scandal.

Before New Year’s eve, both the People’s Party and the Austrian Green Party agreed to form a new government. According to initial reports, 11 Ministries will go to the Conservatives, while members of the Green Party will take over four departments. In the September election, more than 37% of the electorate voted for the Conservatives, while around 13% voted for the Greens.

It was clear even before the election that the People’s Party’s leader, Sebastian Kurz, was going to become the Chancellor again. The 33-year-old Mr. Kurz, who was the youngest head of government last year, was leading in most opinion polls.

The “Ibizagate”, the corruption scandal that brought down the government, mainly damaged the Freedom Party. The crisis hit the coalition when Heinz Christian-Strache, the then Vice-Chancellor and leader of the Freedom Party, was filmed while offering lucrative government contracts to an alleged Russian oligarch. However, Mr. Kurz played an impressive political game in the aftermath of the scandal. He ended the coalition and sought a fresh mandate. In the September election, the Freedom Party suffered a setback as its vote share fell by 9.8 percentage points to 16.2%.

“Sebastian Kurz is taking over again. In his last term, he normalised the far-right and he even copied large parts of their political programme. I think he is just adapting to everything that might help him keep power. This time, it’s the Green Party,” said Thomas Wurzacher, 27, a teacher from Innsbruck. “Everyone is talking about Greta Thunberg, climate change and all these issues, and he [Kurz] even made it possible to benefit from that,” he underlined.

‘Islamophobic agenda’

“We chose a new path,” Mr. Kurz said on January 2 when he formally announced the coalition. “It was a challenge for both sides, because the differences between the two sides are big.” Werner Kogler, the Greens leader, who will become Vice-Chancellor, added: “We were elected for different things.”

The Conservatives are set to take over key Ministries. Klaudia Tanner, a senior member of the People’s Party, is expected to become the country’s first woman Defence Minister.

The Conservatives will also keep the Department of Integration, which has raised criticism. Rusen Timur Aksak, a spokesman of the Islamic Faith Community, described the decision as a “remarkable sign for the bad gambling of the Greens”, on his social media account. He also hinted that anti-Muslim activists might be happy about the decision.

“During his last term as Chancellor, Kurz pushed an Islamophic agenda. He justified the hijab ban and regularly tried to use Muslim-related topics to fish for right-wing votes. It’s obvious that he will continue doing that,” said Mohammad Shakil, 23, an Austrian Muslim rights activist from Innsbruck.

He pointed out Mr. Kurz’s anti-migrant policies might continue as well. “During his chancellorship, apprentices from Afghanistan and other countries were deported although they had work or school agreements. Who can guarantee that such things will not happen again?” he asked.

According to the coalition agreement, the hijab ban and deportation centres for unsuccessful asylum seekers will continue while the government will introduce a carbon tax on airline tickets and set a target to make Austria carbon neutral by 2040.

The Ministries of Justice, Social Affairs, Culture and Environment will be run by the Greens.

Many European media outlets reacted positively about the new government. According to German conservative daily Die Welt, many people in Germany “dream about what is happening in the neighboring country”. Italian newspaper Il Messagero wrote about a “new chapter” in Austria’s history. “The Greens are leaving their traditional role as an Opposition party and are now moving as a coalition partner of the young and charismatic leader of the People’s Party”, the newspaper wrote.

Meanwhile, Mr. Strache, who left politics and was expelled by his Freedom Party, is planning to make a comeback. He says he still wants to shape Austria’s politics.

(Emran Feroz is a journalist based in Stuttgart, Germany)

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