Following a challenging 2015/16, Austria has recovered three places to rank 14 in this year’s Soft Power 30 index. December saw the decisive rejection of far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in favour of the pro-European and liberal candidate in Alexander Van der Bellen. Austria’s electorate proved itself to be a more-than-capable barrier to the tide of right-wing populism spreading across the Western world. This decision will be tested in October as the country returns to the polls to elect its legislature, with commentators fearing the elections could re-open the door to the far-right Freedom Party. Elsewhere, the capital Vienna was named the world’s most liveable city on the basis of its political, social, educational, economic, and infrastructural conditions. Austria notably shot up in the Digital sub-index, with its online public service offering now among the very best in Europe. These developments have helped Austria partly repair its long-standing reputation for high living standards, stability, and open-mindedness.
Austria consistently scores high in the polling, due in part to the country’s cultural and rapidly-expanding digital assets, as well as its high-quality political institutions. Its defiance of the march of right-wing populism drastically shifted the media narrative in favour of Austria and helped restore its traditional image of being a good global citizen.
Although the expansion of its increasingly tough policy on refugees has slowed, January saw Austria become the latest country to ban the full-face veil in public spaces. While largely a symbolic measure to mitigate pressure from the Freedom Party, it shows that fundamental social tensions remain, and risks impacting the country’s attitude towards external engagement.
Austria should look to fully exploit the positive outcome of its December elections, and act upon Van der Bellen’s call for an outward-looking and open-minded approach to global issues. It should also seek to capitalise on Vienna’s reputation as the world’s most desirable city and establish the capital as a uniquely classic yet modern metropolitan hub.