The 31-year-old next chancellor of Austria

If there’s any overarching trend that spans all the European elections I’ve covered this year, it’s this: traditional, centrist political parties are struggling, and their losses are in large part far-right populists’ gain.

But in Austria, the traditionally center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) bucked that trend in Austria’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, coming in first with more than 31 percent of the vote. The reason? 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, the People’s Party leader who is expected to become the next chancellor and the youngest head of government in Europe. Kurz, who took over the People’s Party leadership this summer, worked to remake the party in his own image—both in terms of pitching it as a young, fresh, new “movement” (à la Emmanuel Macron in France) and by shifting its rhetoric sharply to the right on immigration, a move intended to co-opt the political space previously dominated by the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).

As center-right parties look to figure out how they can regain support and fend off their far-right populist challengers, many will undoubtedly look to Kurz as a model of a new generation of European leaders.

Check out the piece here, for The Atlantic. Next up is the Czech Republic, which votes on Friday and Saturday — stay tuned for my reporting from Prague!

Sebastian Kurz speaks to supporters outside the ÖVP headquarters on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017.

 

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The U.S. digital firm that helped engineer AfD’s historic victory

As readers of this blog well know, I have a handful of main interests as I report from the European campaign trail this year. Primarily, I’m focused on the success or failure of right-wing populist parties across the continent—but I’m also continually fascinated by any and all attempts to bring U.S.-style campaign tactics to Europe. (This was something I was interested in here in Germany in 2013, as well as earlier this year with Emmanuel Macron’s organizing tactics in France.)

Here in Germany, those interests converged for this story about Harris Media, an Austin-based GOP digital firm that helped Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland harness its strong online presence to become the third-strongest party here.

Part of that involved running a U.S.-style attack campaign against German Chancellor Angela Merkel, particularly over her decision to admit more than a million refugees into Germany; part was around the party’s strategy to convince voters that it was socially acceptable to vote for AfD, a particularly complicated issue given German voters’ often visceral reaction to the far right. It was a really interesting piece to report out, particularly in light of how well AfD ultimately performed on Sunday.

I also wrote about the results and what AfD’s performance means for German politics the day after Election Day here, for the GroundTruth Project — a piece you can read here.

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“Merkel, the Oathbreaker”: the AfD oppo site from US-based firm Harris Media (screenshot)

 

What right-wing populism looks like in Norway

Know anything about Norwegian politics?

Yeah, I didn’t either until a few weeks ago, when I decided to book a trip to Oslo ahead of Norway’s national elections on Monday. Compared with high-profile elections in France, Germany and the United Kingdom this year, Norway’s election ran very much under the radar (at least among English-language media). But considering my goal of understanding European populism writ large this year, I figured it was worth a trip up north.

While in Oslo, I sought to answer the following question: how does the right-wing populist Progress Party, led by Siv Jensen, compare to its counterparts further south in Europe? And is Scandinavian right-wing populism writ large different than the kind that’s getting so much attention in western and central Europe?

Ultimately, I found that the Progress Party—while it’s certainly sought to capitalize on the same anti-Islam, anti-immigration sentiment that have strengthened similar parties around the continent—bills itself as a much more moderate alternative, both in terms of its rhetoric and in the issues for which it advocates. The party has been in government with the Conservatives since 2013, and on Monday appeared to win another four years in a coalition government.

You can read my piece, which ran in The Atlantic, here.

The Progress Party booth on Karl Johans Gate in Oslo

A not-so-crazy election season in Germany

The campaign posters have been up around Germany for weeks and the main candidates are traversing the country speaking to voters — but Germany’s 2017 federal elections, expected to be Angela Merkel’s toughest campaign yet, are actually shaping up to be a little bit boring.

Much to the chagrin of journalists and political junkies here, election season has been decidedly devoid of drama: with Merkel’s CDU holding a decisive first place in the polls, it’s hard to imagine an outcome later this month that doesn’t involve her remaining chancellor.

I wrote about that this week for The Atlantic, looking at just how much Merkel’s political position has improved and solidified in the last six months and some of the reasons why.

There are still a few possibilities for late-breaking surprises, of course: an uptick in refugees could raise the fortunes of far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), or hacked Bundestag emails could be released and and reveal something shocking. But otherwise, the fight for Merkel’s political life that some saw possible earlier this year looks like it won’t materialize.

You can read my piece here.

Campaign posters in Berlin, August 2017

Watching Charlottesville from Berlin

With the six-hour time difference between the East Coast of the U.S. and Germany, I often hear about things that happened in the States in the afternoon or evening when I wake up the following morning. This makes for a strange disconnect from home sometimes, particularly for someone who used to cover the minute-by-minute happenings of Washington and the current administration.

It was especially strange — and incredibly sad — to wake up last Saturday morning to tweets and images out of the Friday night white nationalist march in Charlottesville, and to follow the events the following day from afar as well. And watching Americans chant Nazi slogans and wave Nazi flags, spewing hate toward their fellow Americans, felt even stranger because I was seeing it unfold from Germany. (The president’s response over the following days was equally astonishing.)

What happened in Charlottesville last weekend, I think it’s fair to say, couldn’t have happened in Germany today. As one of my German teachers put it to me days later, it’s not that there aren’t still Nazi sympathizers here; it’s just that it is so socially unacceptable to espouse those beliefs that that kind of public display seems unthinkable. And more than being socially unacceptable, overt use of Nazi symbolism or gestures here in Germany is literally against the law. As The Economist put it this week, in Germany, “Free speech is upheld … but this right to expression remains firmly distinguished from a right to publicity or acceptance.” (This is why it’s not surprising, for example, that a drunk American man recently got punched for giving the Nazi salute in Dresden.)

For all America’s good qualities, self-reflection about past mistakes isn’t necessarily one of them. In Germany, however, the past is everywhere — Germans are confronted with it at seemingly every turn. That’s part of, I think, why the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has had less success here than its sister parties in Austria, France or the Netherlands have had: Germany knows what happens when populists with these kinds of views get too much power.

Thinking about this topic has had me reflecting on an article I read last year by Deborah Cole, a Berlin-based correspondent for AFP, about the culture of memory in Berlin — one that at times feels in-your-face and inescapable:

I have lived and reported from the heart of peaceful, prosperous Germany for more than two decades but am still not entirely steeled to the jabs to the gut you can get walking through its public spaces. No one does memorials quite like the Germans, accosting you in the streets as you go about your business. Particularly in Berlin, the past is never the past, even in a city with a knack for constantly reinventing itself.

First-time visitors often find it overwhelming. Friends from my hometown Boston, an older Jewish couple, for years couldn’t bring themselves to make the trip. When they finally did, they were bowled over by the city’s charms but had to brace themselves for what they called “the creepy factor” — those reminders of the past that seem to sneak up on you at every turn. My own walk to and from the office each day takes me through a beautiful, bustling and — when you open your eyes to it — harrowing landscape. It’s history that never lets you be.

This piece rings true for me in the two times I’ve lived in Berlin: my old office in 2013 was down the block from the Friedrichstraße station, which features a memorial outside to the station’s history as a starting point both for journeys fleeing Nazi persecution and those sending people away to concentration camps (“Trains to life, trains to death,” the inscription reads). Meeting my friends for dinner in a favorite biergarten, I would ride my bike home alongside the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße, past the metal poles symbolizing the concrete wall that not so long ago divided this city. And outside countless homes and buildings around Berlin (and elsewhere in Germany), golden Stolpersteine commemorate the fate of Jewish individuals and families who previously lived there.

Germany’s got some obviously dark times in its recent past. Germans have confronted them — and continue to do so every day. When Americans show up at a white nationalist protest bearing Nazi flags and shouting Nazi slogans, it’s a reminder that America hasn’t done nearly enough to reflect on the less-than-sterling parts of its own history.

 

What’s next: Life in Germany

It’s been a bit longer than I would have liked since my last post: after the French election I spent some time back in the States taking care of logistical things, then traveled in Asia for about three weeks (Japan, China and the Philippines). Now, I’m about five weeks into my time in Berlin, where I’ll be living through next May on an 11-month fellowship.

The fellowship, sponsored by the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation), brings 16 Americans to Germany to learn German and work in German organizations. For me, this means I’ll be working with two different news organizations that have a presence here in Germany — more details to come on that later this fall. We also each work on a year-long project with relevance to transatlantic relations, which for me involves continuing along with my topic for the year of populism and European elections. Beyond just Germany, I’ll be taking trips to other nearby countries holding elections this fall — most notably Norway (Sept. 11), Austria (Oct. 15) and the Czech Republic (Oct. 20-21).

Since election season is really just getting underway here — with less than seven weeks to go until Election Day, a concept that still feels strange to a U.S. political reporter — I’ll post some thoughts soon on the upcoming campaign and my impressions thus far. In the meantime, here are some details about my program and the 15 other incredible Americans I’m sharing this journey with:

https://culturalvistas.org/articles/press-releases/meet-2017-class-robert-bosch-foundation-fellows/

 

More stories from France

With the election over, I’ve wrapped up my reporting here in Paris — and before I go into full vacation mode, I wanted to do a quick post with the results of some of my final France reporting.

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Outside the Louvre Museum in Paris covering Macron’s victory party on May 7, 2017

On election night, I spoke with more than a dozen young voters at Macron’s victory party about their reasons for voting the way they did, the most important issues facing France and what role they think young voters played in Macron’s victory. That piece ran here, for the GroundTruth Project.

After the campaign ended, I looked in a piece for The Atlantic at how French pollsters fared in 2017 — and came to the conclusion that overall, they fared better than their American and British counterpoints in this crazy political climate (though we’ll have to see whether that holds for France’s legislative elections in June, when Macron’s En Marche! party will face its next big test).

Next up: a bit of traveling around this gorgeous country I’ve been living in. I’ll spend some time in Alsace, explore Burgundy with a friend and maybe take a few other quick trips in my remaining two weeks here. (Don’t worry, I’ll be back with more campaign reporting later this summer and this fall!)