Though Austria has a long history of populist governments, most notably under the pre-World War I Christian Socials, since World War II the national has been governed either by the moderately Leftist Social Democrats or the center-Right People’s Party, the SPÖ and ÖVP.
But Sunday’s presidential election marks a sea change, pitting a non-partisan Leftist populist, economist and descendant of Russian nobility Alexander Van der Bellen against the odds-on favorite, a former aircraft mechanic and leader of the far-Right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs [Austrian Freedom Party, or FPÖ] Norbert Hofer.
Hofer, echoing another presidential candidate from across the Atlantic, declares himself to be “decisively opposed to forced multiculturalism, globalization and mass immigration.”
And while the presidency, as in most European parliamentary democracies, is largely ceremonial, the winner will be the commander of the nation’s armed forces.
Van der Bellen, formerly a member of and national spokesman for the Austrian Green Party, is running as a nonpartisan candidate, though with backing from the Greens.
Out of a field of six candidates in the initial round of voting 24 April, Hofer won 35 percent of the vote and Van der Bellen won 21 percent. And since no candidate had a majority, the two leading candidates headed to Sunday’s runoff.
What does it all mean?
From Der Spiegel:
All of Europe is looking this week to Austria, this small country in its midst where an eventuality considered by many to be outrageous may soon become reality. This reality, though, comes in the guise of a harmless, friendly face. Norbert Hofer is a 45-year-old trained airplane technician from the state of Burgenland, just southeast of Vienna. He is the father of four and his wife, his second marriage, is an elderly care professional. Hanging above his desk in parliament is a framed image of Article 1 of the constitution, which says of the Austrian Republic: “Its law emanates from the people.”
Will the people of Austria really elect a right-wing populist to become their highest representative on Sunday? Is Austria in the process of becoming part of that group of European countries, along with Hungary, Poland, Finland and Switzerland, where the right-wing is already part of the government? And if so, how long will it take before the new right-wing movement tears Europe apart?
If one looks geographically at the congratulatory messages the FPÖ candidate Hofer received following his triumph in the first round of presidential elections, a checkered pattern of new European nationalists emerges. Marine Le Pen from the French party Front National was first, followed by the Lega Nord of Matteo Salvini and Forza Italia, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. From the Netherlands, congratulations came from PVV head Geert Wilders and from Germany, plaudits were sent by the right-wing populists from the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The right wing in Europe is becoming organized and developing contacts across the Continent. The election on Sunday is far more than just a purely Austrian affair.
Across Europe, large, mainstream parties are losing power and influence. It has happened in Spain, France and Germany, but nowhere has the phenomenon been as dramatically visible as during the first round of the presidential elections in Austria. Hofer came in first place followed by Green candidate Van der Bellen. An independent candidate came in third place. Only then did the candidates of the SPÖ and ÖVP — the two parties that currently form the governing coalition — follow in fourth and fifth place. Together, they didn’t even managed 23 percent of the vote.
UPDATE: For a broader discussion of what’s at stake, here’s a video of a panel discussion on the election just posted by Deutsche Welle:
Crisis in Austria: Another Blow for Europe? | Quadriga
In Austria, Sunday could see a right-wing populist elected to the position of president. The FPÖ’S Norbert Hofer, whose xenophobic slogans have struck a chord with voters, aims to tap into the constitution’s potential for authoritarian power.
Norbert Hofer could take the reins of government by emergency decree if he wins Sunday’s elections. The current state of play augurs well for him.
In the first round of voting, the traditionally popular Social Democrats, the SPÖ, and the Conservatives, the ÖVP, got a taste of the electorate’s wrath. Chancellor Werner Faymann of the SPÖ resigned.
It seems the Alpine republic is lurching to the right as its voters follow a pattern that has emerged throughout Europe. Is there no end to the trend towards right-wing populism?
- Ewald König is a freelance correspondent and an Austrian himself, who has been covering Austrian politics for decades now. He says: “It’s not only the refugees, there are many other reasons for Austria’s and Europe’s drift to the right.”
- Alan Posener is a commentator for the Berlin daily Die Welt, who says: “Nobody cares who governs a small country like Austria. But Germany has a responsibility for the whole of Europe. We can’t afford Viennese coffeehouse politics.”
- Ulrike Guérot of the European Democracy Lab believes that “A wildfire is sweeping across Europe. It’s taken in Hungary, and now Austria, with France looking likely to be next.”