Greta Thunberg attends a demonstration calling for action on climate change, during the Fridays for Future school strike in Vienna, Austria, on May 31 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LEONHARD FOEGER
Greta Thunberg attends a demonstration calling for action on climate change, during the Fridays for Future school strike in Vienna, Austria, on May 31 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LEONHARD FOEGER

Vienna — Two days after rallying 7-million protesters across the world by invoking the threat of climate change, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg got credit for motivating voters to redraw the political landscape in Austria.

After being frozen out of parliament just two years ago, the Alpine country’s Greens unexpectedly tripled their support in Sunday’s election to win 14% of the vote, according to preliminary projections. The result sets up the group as a viable coalition partner for Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party and shows how environmental concerns are moving to the top of the political agenda in Europe.

“The thematic development really helped the Greens, I’m thinking here of Greta Thunberg and the climate protests,” said the Social Democrat’s MD Thomas Drozda in an ORF television interview conceding defeat. He resigned on Monday after seeing more than 190,000 Social Democrats migrate to the Green Party.

Amid record summer heatwaves, funerals for lost glaciers and dying forests, climate change is starting to change EU politics at the highest levels. German chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of the bloc’s economic engine, is losing popularity to the country’s Greens after being seen as too timid in protecting the environment. Incoming European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has called keeping the planet healthy the bloc’s “most pressing challenge”.

In the two years since Kurz won his last national election, global warming rose 11 percentage points to become the top concern in the minds of Austrians, according to the latest Eurobarometer data. That is about the same increase in support Austria’s Green Party received on Sunday.

The result turned what was a fringe movement in the conservative country into a leading candidate for a role in government and could be a sign of things to come elsewhere in Europe. Kurz will be hard pressed to dismiss the Greens, even if there are differences especially on sensitive social issues such as migration.

The other options could be even more fraught for Kurz. Joining up with the Social Democrats would mimic Merkel’s fragile “grand coalition” and make a mockery of his promise of change. Like other centre-left parties, the Social Democrats are in disarray and suffered their worst result in a national election since the country was created in the aftermath of World War 1.

Renewing his vows with the far-right Freedom Party would mean relying on a volatile group that triggered the collapse of his last government and sustained damage to its reputation from the aftermath of the Ibiza scandal — an undercover video that showed party officials currying favour with a fake Russian oligarch’s niece on the Spanish island. Since then, new rifts within the party have emerged amid internal financing issues.

The far-right party’s support sunk more than expected, dropping about 10 percentage points to its worst result since 2006. It is a sign that populists are struggling to secure their base as migration concerns ebb and how they tend to stumble after getting their hands on power. Overall, the former government’s support declined 4.2 percentage points, and the Freedom Party backed off its ambition of reviving the alliance.

“For now, the populist tide is receding in many parts of the continent,” Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank, said. “Helped by the constraints which euro membership imposes on them, countries sharing the euro seem to be better at containing the risks” that are causing deepening political divides in the US and the UK.

‘Centre of Politics’

Climate change and environmental protection were the most important election topics for a third of voters, according to pollsters at Vienna’s SORA Institute. That is in sharp contrast to the last election just two years ago when immigration and asylum drove voter preferences.

Austria’s five parties agreed on a €540m package last week to promote renewable-energy investments. But while there is broad consensus that climate change is real and that fixing it will require a retooled economy, the parties diverge in how they propose dealing with the problem.

The People’s Party has been promoting the development of hydrogen fuel in transport and heavy industry, while the Greens have sought to reduce the number of vehicles driving in cities and want to expand public transportation.

While Kurz pointed out in interviews on election night that he was elected on a platform based on his trademark tough line on migration and lower taxes, he notably avoided highlighting contradictions to Green policies, focusing instead on areas where the two will have an easier time finding common ground.

“If I dare to predict what the biggest challenge will be: we’re seeing a negative economic development in Germany, we still haven’t resolved Brexit, we have tensions in the trade relationship with the USA,” he told Austrian public radio Oe1. “Our challenge will be to ensure good economic growth.”

Bolstered by the growing momentum of the Fridays for Future protests, which has moved beyond schoolchildren skipping classes, the Greens made it clear that their support will not come cheap. Party chief Werner Kogler said he is ready to negotiate with Kurz “as long as protecting the climate is at the centre of politics.”

“Climate protection has arrived in the middle of society,” Green politician Birgit Hebein said in an interview on ORF, thank the protest movement started by Swedish activist Thunberg a year ago. “It is key that climate change is tackled on all levels.”

Bloomberg