Refugees in the riptide: Two models of leadership on offer in Europe
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited 1 million refugees, particularly from Syria, to make Germany their new home in 2015, most commentators, even if they agreed with her intentions, argued that she was digging her own political grave.
Their prediction: A populist wave — long in the making but only recently causing tremors in Europe — would sweep Merkel off her feet the minute voters could go to the polls. It seemed almost certain that, in a Europe of heightened political divisions and growing anti-immigrant sentiment, no one could survive such a daring gambit.
In parliamentarian elections September 24, however, Merkel proved the doubters wrong. Although her party lost a significant number of votes, she remains steadfast as chancellor, one of the few constants in European politics.
Yes, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) made it into parliament for the first time but, compared to other European countries where far-right populist parties have secured upward of 30% of the vote, 12.6% seems manageable.
Merkel excluded the AfD as a partner before and if she cobbles together a so-called Jamaica-coalition of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Green Party, the far-right’s voice will be less influential in the Bundestag. Merkel wasn’t intimidated by AfD’s populist’s tactics; she was emboldened by them.
Still, not every political leader is as steady in her course. Although Austria experienced a similarly high refugee inflow per person since 2015, the political landscape heading into the elections October 15 is very different. The far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) was leading in the polls until early this year, while Austria’s grand coalition parties were going at each other’s throats instead of reforming and solving pressing policy challenges.
In May, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, 31, of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP), called for early elections and installed himself as the new party leader. Five months later, the dynamics have changed drastically. The Freedom Party is under pressure and Kurz is set to win the elections.
How did that happen?
Kurz mastered something that a lot of politicians attempted and failed at: He co-opts far-right ideas and markets them as centrist and he does it all with a friendly, calm but determined demeanour. In this campaign, he mainstreamed policies that were divisive at their core.
Kurz portrayed himself as sympathetic to the worries of the general population despite having been part of the ruling government for the last seven years. He implicitly accused NGOs that operate in the Mediterranean arena of attracting refugees and therefore are responsible for high numbers of casualties. He credits himself with having closed the refugee route on the western Balkans without mentioning the worsening situation in Greek refugee camps.
Most important, he allows his supporters to express their intolerance guilt-free, without being labelled racist or neo-Nazi.
Unlike Merkel, Kurz didn’t choose to exercise leadership during his time in government. Instead of building a coalition to keep populist impulses in check, he self-servingly harnessed the populist train to reach the highest political office. Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the Freedom Party, tolerates Kurz’s methods as the price of admission for joining a coalition government with him.
This Faustian bargain is nothing new. Austria had such a coalition in 2000. The only difference is that this time the EU Commission in Brussels will not impose sanctions. Democratic backsliding was once the exception in Europe. It may soon become the norm.
As much as Merkel’s and Kurz’s political strategies differ (their parties are sister-parties), they face a common challenge: Populism isn’t just reshaping politics from the bottom up; politics is also reshaping populism from the top down.
Political leadership can fan the flames of anger and resentment towards immigrants or ease their integration. Kurz has put party interest and personal ambition above social cohesion. In appealing to emotions over reason, he exacerbated the challenge that populism poses to Western democracy.
Merkel’s example shows what is possible when political leaders put the interests of country ahead of self and party. Her approach towards the refugee crisis will likely lead to a more stable, long-term outcome — not just for German citizens but for those risking their lives to find a new home.
The quest for power is self-serving and populist incitement is a tool. The forces it unleashes may bring short-term political gain but the collateral damage in terms of deepening divisions and social strains is too significant to ignore. Democracy demands responsible leadership. In Europe today, two models are on offer. The future of Europe will depend on which gains the upper hand.