The resistible rise of the Far Right in Austria. The presidential election is on a knife-edge before the deciding round of at the end of May.
It did indeed come as a shock that moment when the blue bar on the TV screen last Sunday at 5 pm shot upwards: 35 per cent of the votes for the far right FPÖ presidential candidate Norbert Hofer with his nearest challenger – the Greens’ ex-chairman Alexander van der Bellen – pretty far behind on 21 per cent. And the candidates of the two ruling (former) big parties, the Christian democrats and the social democrats, had shrunk to barely more than ten per cent. Nobody had bet on an upset on this scale, not one political expert, not one opinion pollster.
For the FPÖ this first round of the presidential election represents the biggest breakthrough they’ve ever had in a federal election. Behind it lie several pivotal reasons. First: the candidate and his campaign. From a FPÖ point of view the candidate and campaign were simply brilliant. One banked on Austria First, anti-EU, anti-refugees and on the well-honed, all-encompassing anti-Establishment messaging. But with Hofer they had a candidate who came across as a man one could trust, a little bit nerdy, a shade too boyish. Of the type: a right-wing radical nobody can be afraid of; an extremist but harmless. So he was the ideal figure to exceed his party’s potential support so dramatically. If party boss Strache is like an agitator who frightens people away then Hofer is the nice and sweet son-in-law type one can plump for one time at least out of sheer dissatisfaction with the rest.
This explains why Hofer ended up significantly ahead of the expected potential vote for his party. This potential is in any case frighteningly high and is nurtured by everything that generally favours right-wing populists in today’s Europe: utter disenchantment with the political and economic elites, the feeling of the “man on the street” that nobody gives a fig. Add to that in Austria: rage about a grand coalition of those parties that have marked post-war Austria, which, in the eyes of the people, have for ever and a day viewed the country as in their possession and today put dreadfully incapable apparatchiks into the top jobs. This is all embodied in the person of the chancellor, Werner Faymann. The candidates of the two established but now former big parties experienced a pretty unprecedented collapse. Incredibly, Faymann clings to his seat even after this debacle as in no way responsible.
The next four weeks will be tricky. The FPÖ man Hofer has by no means won. Of course, the significant gap between him and second placed but favourite Alexander van der Bellen is a shock to the system for the centre-left camp. And courage and energy are now required if this advantage is to be wiped out. We need solidarity among democrats – though this is complicated by the fear it might possibly help Hofer if the entire country, from the chancellor to the cardinal, lines up against him, enabling the FPÖ to bang the drum: “Look, the entire Establishment is joining forces to block the candidate of the little people.”
From today’s perspective the final round in four weeks is on a knife-edge. Hofer has comprehensively exhausted the voter potential of the FPÖ but can still net a few votes from the conservative camp. Traditional Green and social democrat voters, on the other hand, largely stayed at home in the first round. So that means van der Bellen might win on the backs of non-voters. If he wins the bigger part of voters for the independent, liberal democrat candidate Irmgard Gris and, on top, half of those who voted in the first round for the SPÖ candidate, then he might well get over the required 50 per cent plus-1 hurdle. Equally, the FPÖ has got huge momentum after this first round result – it’s brimming with confidence.
Blocking Hofer as federal president is anyway just the immediate minimalist programme that, even if it succeeds, will do nothing about the deep crisis afflicting the political system. The government is a spent force, the social democrats are a lifeless torso with a chancellor and party chairman Werner Faymann who has absolutely zero credibility after the dozens of twists and turns and endless tactical manoeuvrings he’s carried out. The governing parties haven’t even the shred of a positive idea in their heads about how one can help the country progress. For months polls have shown that the Freedom lot would be the biggest party when it came to National Assembly elections. And by a distance too: The far right is on a stable 32 per cent, with the Christian and social democrats ten points behind.
The old political scene is breaking up. If we want to stop the turn in Austria towards ‘Orbanistan’ it would require open-heart surgery: the social democrats in particular would have to get rid of the greater part of their political top brass and do so whilst chained to a government whose protagonists simply block each other. It’s not entirely impossible that might happen but let’s put it like this: This is not exactly the best time for such an operation. The country is tilting to the right and a left-wing alternative that can use popular disenchantment and dissatisfaction to its own purposes is nowhere in sight. If the social democrats cannot execute this U-turn then such an alternative will have to be built with lightning speed. The next parliamentary elections are due in 2018 but nobody is betting on the coalition dragging on for as long as that after this debacle.
The German version of this column was published by TAZ