12 May 2016

Why Austrians are flirting with the far-right

By Christopher Drexler

Early on in the short 2016 presidential campaign, opinion polls were unanimous in the conviction that the two governing party candidates Andreas Khol (ÖVP, Austrian Conservative Party) and Rudolf Hundstorfer (SPÖ, Austrian Social Democratic Party) would have no chance of finishing on the podium. Only a week before the elections on April 24, 2016, the newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten predicted the following outcome: 25% for the Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, 24% for the Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer and 21% for the independent Irmgard Griss. Opinion polls would end up being right, with one decisive exception: Norbert Hofer achieved an outstanding result in the first round of voting: 35.1% and thus nearly 14% ahead of runner-up Alexander Van der Bellen (21.3%). In 3rd place Irmgard Griss: new, female, independent. As it seems, Hofer was an acceptable alternative for the highest office in the government and for many who were sick and tired of the constant party and election banter.

Now, was Mr. Hofer actually elected – a man who, as third chair of the National Council, the public had barely known until the presidential elections? Or did the vote belong to the Austrian Freedom Party, the deliberately selected protest party of the common man? Or to the eloquent federal party chairman Heinz Christian Strache and his ambitions of moving into the Federal Chancellor’s office? Whoever was elected, it is evident that in recent years, the Freedom Party has managed to achieve impressive electoral victories in every provincial or federal election in recent years. After what happened in 2000, is Austria facing another shift to the right, the return of sanctions imposed by the European Union, and the next Committee of Wise Men at the gates?

Now, the result was, even apart from the assertions of demographics, no great surprise: Since their nomination, the widespread criticism, or even open rejection of the two candidates from the ÖVP and SPÖ had been secretly whispered among officials and aggressively communicated in the media: too old, too colourless, too conservative.

If only they had more closely followed the example and tactics of the last presidential election and agreed on a joint candidate, male or female. (A quick reminder: in 2010, the Austrian Conservative Party endorsed the Social Democratic Party candidate Heinz Fischer and achieved an impressive result of 79.33%). Of course, they would never have come near this result, but they also would not have ended up with a meager 11.3% (Hundstorfer) and 11.1% (Khol). With the same voting behaviour, they might have been able to give Van der Bellen a run for his money for second place. Yet the fact remains that a common candidate could have served as a common signal of a functioning federal government where people get along.

But how can a federal government agree on a candidate when all of the government’s work can only be rated as a poor performance. In times of obvious fears and perceived discrimination of the population, justified or not, in times in which streams of refugees are moving across the whole of Europe, in times in which borders are opened and closed, in times in which society is evidently changing, a government must show unity, follow a common goal, and take action, and should not hide behind braces and cash registers for all.

The result, however, is what it is, the voters have spoken and we are facing the second round of voting, forcing us to decide between left and right. It’s like choosing between the plague and cholera, as many have commented. This may be the case for middle class voters, but the bold and aggressive language that others are so often criticized for should be toned down in this case, too. “Not all voters are idiots” is the title of an interview with the Austrian writer Thomas Glavinic in the current issue of Der Spiegel magazine. He gets to the heart of the conflict between the so-called “left” and “right”: “For 30 years now, all that has been achieved was to drive even more people into the arms of the Freedom Party. I expect a better strategy from the left. Especially people who claim to be moral judges and who apparently know the difference between good and evil should be capable of more reflection. Instead, they have not only belittled the enticers, but also those people who have voted for them for whatever reason. These voters are not all Nazis; the true extremists represent only a small minority. The others are simply plagued by fears, and whether they are justified or not does not matter for the time being. These people must be listened to, and not insulted. Otherwise, the only listeners remaining are the rightists. Some of the leftists, however, seem to prefer hearing themselves talk. This exacerbates the division of society. Every disparaging remark causes more radicalization.”

To all those who are fearful and critical: Of course, a Freedom Party President does not mean that marauding bands of uniformed Nazis will be marching in Austria in the future. But they must also realize that for reasons of common sense, there can be no choice but to commit to European integration while emphatically rejecting all anti-European trends.

Christopher Drexler is an Austrian politician (ÖVP) , since 2000 Member of the Styrian parliament and since 2003 Club Chairman of the ÖVP parliamentary group .