Austria’s Existential Choice
2016 has been as a politically stressful year for many countries and Austria is no exception. On May 22 the country narrowly avoided becoming the first EU member governed by a far-right head of state by instead electing Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green party leader running as independent, in a second round of presidential elections. But supporters of Van der Bellen did not rejoice for long. The runoff was declared invalid and then later rescheduled once more. On December 4 Austrians will finally head back to the polls to make up their minds, and this time, no one knows what the results will be.
After a heated, nerve-wracking campaign period, Austrians first voted on April 24. They favored Van der Bellen’s major opponent, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). The far-right candidate managed to secure 35.1% of the votes, an impressive number compared to Van der Bellen’s 21.3%, but not sufficient to take over the office. In cases when no candidate receives more than 50% of support in the first round, Austrian law dictates that the two candidates who finish first face each other in a runoff.
The roots of Hofer’s FPÖ can be tracked back to the most inglorious era in Austrian history. Formed from groups of former Nazis, the party has a nationalistic and anti-immigrant agenda, and it has remained at the margins of mainstream politics until very recently. This year marks the first time that the two major centrist parties which have run the country since the end of World War II, the Social Democrats and the People’s Party, failed to gain enough support to even make it to the runoff of the national election. (They each came in at just 11%.) The results of Austria’s election can be seen as yet another alarming example of the decline of moderate politics and the normalization of extremism nearly everywhere from Spain to Iceland. “This is a beginning of a new political era,” said Heinz-Christian Strache, the Freedom Party’s leader after Hofer’s initial win, “One thing has become clear here–massive dissatisfaction with the government.”
The situation by the Danube grew even tenser in May when, as the election results drifted in, it became clear just how tight the final race was. Supporters on both sides tried to remain poised when, after a day of counting votes, the federal commission announced Van der Bellen’s victory by a margin of just 31,000 votes. But the millions who breathed a sigh of relief did so too early. The FPÖ contested the results of the election, citing irregularities reported in a number of districts. The Constitutional Court ruled for an overturn and a revote.
In the next chapter of this never-ending story, Austria found itself in a sticky situation. The rerun, which had been scheduled for October, was postponed until December 4 due to faulty glue used to seal postal ballots. The incident, perhaps the first in history to feature glue as a major political actor, occurred at a time when Hofer was leading in the polls, further exacerbating the already messy social climate. What was already a stressful election developed into an agony of political uncertainty that brings Austria closer day by day to a state of national existential crisis.
When the Alpine country of only 8.4 million in the heart of Europe makes its choice, it will be deciding much more than its own fate. The huge support for Hofer in Austria is a part of a dangerous new political landscape and represents a nationalistic, xenophobic force washing over the continent. Even if Van der Bellen wins again, his victory will almost certainly be by a tiny margin and will not change the fact that half of the country stood behind a very different vision for the future.
What the Austrian situation is, first and foremost, is an indicator of growing support for far-right parties all across Europe, a barometer of what is happening across liberal democracies. Anti-immigration cries were the main theme of Hofer’s run and have proven themselves appealing to millions. Hofer’s program plays on anxieties related to the ongoing refugee crisis, in which Austria had a major role as a champion of a welcoming, open-arms position. While Van der Bellen’s message revolves around dialogue, value of diversity, and togetherness, his opponent is a man who ardently declares he would not swear in a minister if she wore a hijab, and brags about carrying a gun to be used against refugees whom he has also described as “invaders”.
Electing Hofer would represent a grim milestone, as well as provide a boost to his likes in states that historically advocate for cultural diversity. For example, Hofer’s election would fuel Marine Le Pen’s campaign in France and possibly influence the results of elections in Germany and the Netherlands. It is certain to embolden nationalistic voices growing louder across the continent and legitimize hate towards any form of “otherness.” There are fears that Hofer’s success would be followed by the pattern of post-referendum UK, where the vote to leave seemed to justify ethnic and racial violence, as evidenced by the rise in incidents against minorities.
Vienna has long been a cultural melting pot and a center for international cooperation and inter-religious dialogue. If this is where Austria finds itself, what are the hopes for the rest of the continent? Wall-raising in countries previously known for their openness and hospitality would leave Europe with no one to lead the example for the states that lack the tradition of cultural and ethnical diversity, such as Poland and Slovakia.
FPÖ’s win would also give ground to further exploitation of Eurosceptic rhetoric. After the Brexit vote, Austria was considered the next country with a possibility of turning its back on the European Union, an action that could set off a domino effect. While Chancellor Christian Kern has said there is no such possibility, Hofer warned in June that he would call for a referendum if Brussels take any steps towards more interdependence. Sunday will be a defining moment for the European project. Electing a man who channels people’s fears and feelings of anger onto the European Union would pose a risk of further fragmentation and eventual decay. Even if Auxit is not likely to happen any time soon, it would become extremely difficult for the EU institutions to stand by their values as member states steer in the opposite direction.
The world is not the same as it was on the October 2 when the rerun was originally scheduled to take place. There is now a “Trump shadow” looming over the Austrian choice, and it is hard to ignore what the two populist, angry, flag-waving men have in common. It says a lot about where we, as developed democracies, have found ourselves that we note how chillingly familiar it is to hear Hofer vow to “stop the invasions of Muslims” and declare his determination to raise a fence on the southern border. Both fringe candidates seemed to come out of nowhere, tapping into the same fears and providing the same simple response about whom to blame—establishment, free trade, and migration. Both their bases constitute less educated, white, working-class voters, many of whom feel left behind and threatened by a fast-changing, multicultural society.
Not unlike many other leaders currently rising to power, Hofer also exhibits disturbingly authoritarian ambitions. Although traditionally the presidential post in Austria has been largely ceremonial, the position is far from powerless and the candidate is determined to make full use of that power to further his goals. And Hofer seems to understand that in order to win, he needs to show understanding for voters’ feelings of resentment and lack of control.
After Trump’s unexpected victory, the right wing populists of Europe popped open champagne and rushed to congratulate. But their celebration was not about the man himself, but about the victory of a phenomenon that is growing on both sides of Atlantic. Trump and the European right are tied together by the sense of disappointment and growing polarization in the societies that they skillfully use to catapult themselves to power. What we are witnessing right now is a next election in a series of “votes for feelings”. In that sense, Austria’s existential choice can be seen as an existential choice for our world as we know it.
Nevertheless, there are voices, even among Van der Bellen’s supporters, saying that as frustrating as the situation may be, it is a strong evidence of a well-functioning democracy that the election has been revisited. It is, in a sense, a beautiful celebration of democracy, and it stands as proof that the formal framework of our republics are transparent and fair. Tomorrow, we witness democracy in action once again. Let us celebrate it, but at the same time let us give thought to what creates such turbulent times and how we can work to bridging dangerous gaps in our societies.
Only one thing can be taken for granted before the sun rises over Vienna on Monday and we learn the official result: whoever comes first will face the challenge of presiding over a deeply divided country. If there is one lesson we should take from the tumultuous year of 2016, it is that in every election what the process reveals is even more important than who wins in the end.