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The Austrian quagmire

Austria stands at a crossroads. With the second round of the presidential election annulled, after the Supreme Court ruled that the Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen’s narrow victory over the staunchly nationalist Norbert Hofer might have been due to voting irregularities, the country is set for a rerun in December. The vote may result in this European state having a far-right leader for the first time since the Second World War. Given the rise of populist movements all over Europe which profit from the unstable economic situation and a fresh rise in xenophobic sentiment due to the refugee crisis, it seems that Austrian politics have entered uncharted territory.

November 7, 2016 - Stefano Arroque - Articles and Commentary

The Austrian political scene has followed an interesting pattern since the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the exception of the two decades of the Dollfuss dictatorship and the annexation by Nazi Germany, the left camp has been dominated by the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) – the Green party, which appeared in the 1980s, is yet to achieve a strong result – and the right has been divided between a Catholic-oriented Christian Social faction and a national-liberal pan-Germanist one. After the Second World War, these two groups re-established themselves, with rather distinct outcomes. The Christian Social Party, led by Dollfuss until its dissolution in 1934, rebranded itself as the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), distancing itself from the extreme views held by its predecessor, albeit still claiming the legacy of the Austrian conservative movement. The national-liberal camp reorganised itself seeking to present a renewed, more moderate alternative to its previous doctrine to a population still suffering from the aftermath of nearly a decade of Nazi rule. Presenting itself as the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) since 1956, it was first led by a former Nazi politician Anton Reinthaller, who pursued a more moderate – but still conservative – pan-Germanism, together with liberal economic policies and a positive stance on individualism, in order to please the party’s liberal wing. The next decades would see the FPÖ abandoningits pan-German idea in favour of a more liberal approach, thus becoming, for the first time, a junior partner in a government coalition. 

This shift towards the centre met an abrupt end with Jörg Haider’s rise to the party’s leadership in the late 1980s. A populist politician who came to prominence in Southern Austria, Haider returned the party to its nationalist origins, although now focusing more onAustrian sovereignty than on a “German community that transcends national borders”. His charisma, Euroscepticism and anti-establishment ideas appealed to the public and led the FPÖ to the second place in the 1999 election – its best result so far – with nearly 27 per cent of the vote. The party agreed to form a coalition with the ÖVP, which was to last until 2006. During this period, however, disunity arose from within the party ranks between Haider’s group and a more pan-Germanist faction to its right, led by the current FPÖ leader – Heinz-Christian Strache. With the latter’s victory and Haider’s departure, the party experienced a short period of declining results only to rise again under Strache’s leadership, with an even more nationalist, sometimes overtly xenophobic platform.

This year’s presidential election is just a sample of the new outlook of Austrian politics: the struggle is between an ailing establishment, an ever-stronger FPÖ and a significant group of people from different ideologies and political sympathies – from the Greens to the new liberal pro-EU NEOS party – who are strongly opposed to Mr Strache’s worldview. Such a polarisation has come to a point where this election has become a kind of referendum on the possibility of a FPÖ government. Moreover, while Hofer carried the first round with a whopping 13-point difference between himself and the former Green leader, he is yet to show similar strength once presented against a single candidate. Several personalities, ranging from artists to intellectuals, have endorsed Van der Bellen, in a last bid to oppose the FPÖ. A vote for him, therefore, is more often than not a vote against Hofer. And while this strategy may be successful in the short term, in the long run it may strengthen Strache’s argument that his party is a victim of the bureaucratic and Europhile elite, who puts its own will above that of the people and their own interests above those of the homeland.

It is, therefore, within these two camps – namely, the FPÖ and like-minded parties and everybody else – that Austria’s future will be defined. With the establishment too weak to continue on its own, it is likely to follow the trend and split, breaking their long-standing entente and finally bidding farewell to the “grand coalition” era. Unless a major U-turn happens within any of these parties, the Social Democrats, the Greens and NEOS, due to their pro-EU stance, will stand firmly in the anti-FPÖ camp. This would leave the ÖVP as the sole kingmaker. Although it is impossible to predict the behaviour and decisions of any party leadership, it is certain that there will be a strong pressure within ÖVP ranks to form a coalition with Strache, who would be forced to make concessions and give his junior coalition partner a decisive advantage in policy and decision-making throughout the government. The other alternative for the People’s Party, in this scenario, would be to form a minority government with the anti-FPÖ parties – a move that would likely cost the ÖVP its most conservative voters. Minority governments are rarely, if ever, stable, let alone successful and a failure at this specific time might be fatal for the establishment in the next election, when Mr. Strache’s party would have a significant chance of winning the absolute majority.

After being cancelled due to voting irregularities and postponed because of a problem in the ballot envelope’s glue, the election is set to take place on December 4th. It is not an overstatement to call this the most important Presidential vote in Austria since the beginning of the Second Republic. Even though the President is primarily a ceremonial head of state, the very prospect of a far-right politician with known pan-Germanist sympathies – Mr. Hofer has reintroduced words from the old pan-German lexicon into the FPÖ’s party programme – heading an EU member state is enough reason to worry. Moreover, the President has the power to dissolve the parliament, which Hofer could use to force an early election and, possibly, see the rise of an FPÖ government. The Austrian election must be seen by Europe’s progressives and moderate conservatives as a wake-up call: the “ghosts of nationalism” are no longer to be seen as a thing of the past, but rather as a current threat to the whole European order, and forces that were once confined to the political fringes are now as strong as ever. Their answer must come quickly and decisively – otherwise, they may have to wait a long time for another opportunity to respond.   

Stefano Arroque is a student of International Relations at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Brazil.

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