Austrian Presidential Election: As Maine Goes…

  • Jan Surotchak

Just to put it very plainly: the results of second round of the Austrian presidential elections on Sunday, May 22, mark a milestone in the history of the Second Republic that cannot be ignored. 

In a country where the largely ceremonial presidency (and the rest of political life, as well, for that matter) has been dominated by mainline center-right or the mainline center-left for over half a century, that era is well and truly over.  For first time since popular elections for the president were introduced in 1951, neither the candidate of the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) nor that of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) even made it to the second round.  The run-off on Sunday was contested by Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer, who won the first round with 35.1 percent of the vote, and Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party, who ran as an independent and placed second with 21.3 percent. 

The news coverage around the world of the first round and of the campaign in general has taken a fairly simple tone:  the barbarians are at the gates, and it’s time for the mainline parties to circle the wagons and defend the core institutions of power.  The role of the barbarians in this screenplay, of course, is played by Hofer and the FPÖ, a party which has become a poster child for the rise of anti-establishment, generally right-wing parties across Europe and – we are reminded – was once the political vehicle of the late Jörg Haider.  In the end, Van der Bellen eked out a razor-thin victory in the second-round vote after the counting of absentee ballots (of which there were almost a million), taking 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent for Hofer, and pouring a great deal of cold water over what was expected by many to be a Hofer victory (with turnout at 72.7 percent).  Van der Bellen had collected endorsements from a range of traditional parties and party leaders – right, left and center, themselves playing the role of the good and righteous defenders of Western Liberalism.

Alas, the story is not quite that simple.  Sure, there is very good reason to be concerned about the rise of the radical right across Europe.  From Hungary to France to The Netherlands to Slovakia to Poland, new or recrafted right-wing parties are scoring high in public opinion and are making their mark in election after election.  And many of them are not only anti-establishment, but also anti-European, anti-American, anti-foreigner and anti-free-market, producing a disturbing admixture of nationalism and socialism that cannot help but take observers back to earlier much more troubled times in Europe in the twentieth century as they go looking for comparable examples.

But the story of this election in Austria is not just one of the rise of the radical right.  It is much more a cautionary tale to the political establishment in national capitals all around the democratic West – a tale of the growing disconnect between party headquarters and the political base, between those who govern and those who are governed, particularly in times when outside forces are putting pressure on political and economic systems that are even now neither fully understood nor fully appreciated.

How, exactly, did this look on Sunday in Austria?  To answer this, let’s first go back to the candidates in the first round of the balloting – particularly to those of the traditional parties:  Andreas Khol for the ÖVP and Rudolf Hundstorfer for the SPÖ.  In any previous era, these would have been ideal candidates:  well-known, well-educated, experienced, sophisticated individuals, both of whom had notable careers behind them in their respective parties and in national service.  But the combination of the lingering effects of the economic crisis and the migrant and refugee crisis of 2015, where Austria was on the front line, meant this year that the population was looking for untraditional solutions.  Just for reference, Austria accepted 88,151 asylum requests in calendar 2015 – the population-related equivalent of the United States taking 3,317,000 asylum requests in a calendar year.  Moreover, the vast majority of the 1,000,000 refugees who came to Europe in 2015 transited through Austria on their way to Germany and places north.  With the exception of a few individual political leaders in the mainline parties (most notably Minister of Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz of the ÖVP), no one in the traditional center was trusted by the population to manage this immense challenge.  And so the parties in the center were punished.

In the end, the Austrian presidency is ceremonial, so there will be no revolution afoot in the Hofburg under Van der Bellen, now that the battle between Blue and Green has been completed.  But all eyes are now on the parliamentary elections which will come at the latest in 2018.  The SPÖ took its opportunity to jettison highly unpopular Chancellor Werner Faymann in the middle of the second-round presidential election campaign in favor of Austrian Federal Railways CEO Christian Kern, a new face who will now try to reverse the party’s declining fortunes.  Pressure will now build on the ÖVP to find a way to put Foreign Minister Kurz clearly forward as the new face of that party. 

Polls today suggest that this combination of forces on the center-right and center-left could forestall an FPÖ victory in the parliamentary elections.  But this very, very close defeat will also likely give the FPÖ added motivation and emotion to come out swinging against the traditional parties.  It will be up to them to find a way to respond that the public can understand.  And support.  After all, in his concession post on Facebook, Hofer wrote to thank his supporters, saying that they should not be disappointed, but should view their work on this campaign as an “investment in the future,” in a clear reference to the next campaign.  A campaign that has now begun.  

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