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Why Austria almost elected a fascist president

Alexander van der Bellen’s narrow win was a pyrrhic victory. Interviewed shortly before the election, writer Robert Menasse offered a compelling explanation for his country’s flirt with fascism.

Norbert Hofer with FPO party leader HC Strache. PAimages/Ronald Zak. All rights reserved.A few weeks ago, Austria narrowly avoided a far-right presidency in an election that marked the end of an era. For the first time, no candidate of Austria’s Social or Christian Democratic catch-all parties - or rather, former catch-all parties - had made it to the run-off.

The parties that governed in a grand coalition for much of the country’s post-1945 history were crushed in the first round of the election, their candidates placed a distant fourth and fifth. And while half of Austria and liberals across Europe heaved a sigh of relief when former Green party chairman Alexander van der Bellen narrowly defeated the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer, the result was a pyrrhic victory at best.  

“The effort in this election campaign is not wasted, but is an investment for the future” Hofer stated on his Facebook page after conceding his defeat. And the campaign was indeed an indication of what might come. With 34 % in the latest polls, the Freedom Party is leading by a large margin. The presidential election has shown that its potential to mobilise voters goes much further. A far-right president might have been averted. A far-right chancellor is more likely than ever.

In the presidential election, 49.7 % of Austrian voters voted for a far-right political agenda. The remaining 50.3 % primarily voted against this agenda rather than for a coherent alternative. The election of the liberal, progressive and Europhile van der Bellen should not be mistaken for endorsement of his political views. His victory is the result of the concerted effort of very different, very disunited political forces that wanted to prevent the Freedom Party’s grip on political power at any cost. Had it not been for the country’s polarisation, a candidate with van der Bellen’s profile would not have stood a chance. 

How did all this happen? In the German cultural TV show Aspekte, the Austrian writer Robert Menasse recently explained why so many Austrians turned to the Freedom Party. He explained it to a German audience that – in spite of proximity, shared language and common cultural and historical heritage – is remarkably ignorant about the politics of its southern neighbour.

As is the rest of the world. Austria and its capital Vienna in particular have an excellent international reputation (only tarnished by the occasional bizarre crime involving young women and subterranean dungeons). A lovely little affluent Alpine country on the banks of the Danube River, a place to go for skiing or to enjoy its rich cultural and culinary heritage. Or its secretive banking practices.

But while the strength of Norbert Hofer’s presidential candidacy caught many foreign observers off guard, it was hardly unexpected. In a powerful 18-minute monologue, Menasse offers an explanation of contemporary Austria that sheds light on how past and on-going developments facilitate the flirt with fascism. Acknowledging the disruptions of globalization and the European Union’s multiple crises, he identifies three specifically Austrian factors that aided the Freedom Party’s instrumentalisation of voters’ anxiety: Austria’s previous catch-all parties’ reaction to the rise of the far right, the country’s “Austrofascist” heritage and its flawed constitution.

Since the rise of Jörg Haider who re-invented Austria’s Freedom Party as a pan-Germanic and far-right force in the 1990s, the party proves to have a potential of around 30% of the electorate. Panicking in the light of its electoral success and hoping to steal its thunder, the dominant Social Democrats and Christian Democrats systematically started to appropriate Freedom Party demands and rhetoric, and to translate them into policy.

Rather than providing actual solutions for those sectors in dire need of structural reform, the centrist parties borrowed the far right’s simplistic slogans and scapegoats. “So we don’t have problems with public finance and education or a crisis of the welfare state and the pension system. No, we only have a problem with foreigners.” Such arguments frustrated the centrist parties’ core constituents. Meanwhile supporters of the far-right and a range of swing voters found the Freedom Party’s views confirmed. And they started to feel that their demands could have become policy much earlier if the Freedom Party had been in government. 

“Many voters say ‘Now the Social Democrats say what the Freedom Party has always said, the Christian Democrats say what the Freedom Party has always said and the Greens live on the moon. But the Freedom party has always said it, and therefore we vote for them now’. And this explains how a man like Hofer appears out of nowhere and suddenly manages to get the most votes in the first round, six million votes more than the runner up, while the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats have so few voters they can greet all of them with a personal handshake.”

But why did Austria provide such fertile ground for the rise of a far-right party in the first place? And why are even voters from the political centre susceptible to their ideas, rhetoric and demands? According to Menasse, there is a historical constant in Austrian politics whose presence has widely been overlooked: “There is a continuity in the desire for authoritarian politics, for a consequent right-wing nationalist politics, I would go as far as to say for fascist politics. This desire is widely spread in Austria, for reasons that all those looking to Austria from abroad, and the Germans in particular, always forget.”

In post-1945 Germany, it became absolutely clear to everyone including the most ignorant people that nothing good was to be found in the Nazi period and that its glorification was unacceptable. On a political level, it became impossible to translate fascist views into relevant and sustainable electoral success.

Austria did experience National Socialism as well. In fact, rather than provoking resistance comparable to other states annexed by Nazi Germany, the ‘Anschluss’ of Austria to the German Reich was met with significant popular support. However, although many argue that the review and reappraisal of National Socialism was inadequate, it was largely discredited in post-1945 Austria as well. What was not discredited, however, was Austria’s very own version of fascism created five years before its annexation.

Facing the loss of his parliamentary majority, the Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss dissolved the parliament in 1933 and replaced the democratic system with a fascist corporate dictatorship. Supported by the Catholic Church and the Union of Austrian fraternities, the new regime eliminated the constitutional court, banned competing parties, established internment camps for political opponents, took control over the education system and reinstituted capital punishment for a range of offences including civil unrest and rioting.

And while Austria half-heartedly came to terms with its Nationalist Socialist period, there was never any serious reappraisal of Austrofascism. In fact, quite the contrary happened. Austria’s homemade fascist leader was romanticized as a resistance fighter because he had rejected the unification with Germany and was ultimately assassinated in a failed coup attempt by Austrian Nazis.

“Austrofascism was never questioned. In fact, Dollfuss was seen as a patriotic leader who stood up to Hitler. That he was also a fascist was conveniently ignored” says Menasse. “As a result, fascist ideas, mindsets and traditions derived from Austrofascism could live on, hidden under the label of patriotism. In Austria, patriotism is a synonym for Austrofascist attitudes. And this is also the reason for Austria’s political divide. The Left refers to the Freedom Party’s politicians and voters as Nazis. They, in turn, are outraged, because actually they are not Nazis. They are Austrofascists, which is bad enough.”

According to Menasse, this Austrofascist heritage has increasingly resurfaced in recent years. As in other countries, many Austrians are afraid of being left behind in a world that has started to move too fast for some. Globalization and its disruptive symptoms such as the financial crisis or the recent migration movements leave them worried about what they see as threats to their way of life and their economic well-being. In such a climate, the existing underlying fascist and nationalist currents gains traction again and many start to call for a strong man and a strong party that offers simple solutions and strong leadership. 

These sympathies for authoritarian leadership go hand in hand with a deeply rooted scepticism towards democracy, which Menasse partly attributes to the rather peculiar role of the Austrian constitution: “The constitution has been violated on a daily basis since the very foundation of the Austrian republic. Because it has been replaced by what is referred to as the ‘Actual Constitution’. The constitution says that parliament makes laws. However, in reality most laws are made by the social partners who meet and negotiate behind closed doors. When these laws get to parliament their approval is a formality.”

Moreover, whenever the government wanted to implement a law that did not comply with the constitution, it was just declared a ‘constitutional law’ by a two-thirds majority in parliament. Obtaining such a majority was fairly easy as Austria was largely governed by grand coalitions. As a result, even laws that were in stark contradiction to Austria’s or indeed any country’s basic constitutional principles became part of the constitution and were thus taken out of the jurisdiction of the constitutional court. As Menasse put it, “this meant that the constitution was not only systematically violated but ended up as an utter ruin.”

The constant violation of the constitution and the secondary role of parliament did not overly concern the Austrians as it went hand in hand with increasing wealth. But it did lead to a rather strange understanding of democracy. “After finally getting a democratic republic and a parliament, what did the Austrians learn over the course of at least three generations? They learned that the parliament is irrelevant and that democracy manifests itself in increasing wealth – a rather strange definition of democracy. And on top of that they learned that the constitution does not matter either, because after all it was systematically violated.”

Ironically, it was the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer of all people who pledged to take the Austrian constitution seriously if elected president. Because although previous incumbents have interpreted the presidency as a largely ceremonial office, the constitution actually grants the president significant powers. He is entitled to dismiss the government, dissolve the parliament, nominate a chancellor and govern the country by emergency decrees for up to four weeks. Formally, he is even the supreme commander of the Armed Forces.

“This is a left-over of Austrofascism that somehow stayed in the constitution. Every president in the second republic said: ‘Well, I know this is in the constitution, but we are not going to do it that way.’ But then someone came along and said that he is going to do it that way. And as a result, all democratically minded people panicked. And rightly so. Because the Austrian constitution allows for fascism, and in the worst case only the violation of the constitution could have prevented it.”

We will never know what Norbert Hofer would have made of the presidency and the constitutional powers formally bequeathed to it. "You will be surprised what is going to be possible”, he said in a televised debate that set off alarm bells among his opponents.

It seems likely, however, that Hofer would not have taken any drastic action. And in all fairness, even some of the victorious Alexander van der Bellen’s campaign rhetoric sounded as if Austria was a presidential democracy.

A president Hofer would probably have made an effort to appear like a serious, respectable statesman. He would have been the Freedom Party’s friendly and trustworthy face. He would have done his best to appear acceptable to the political mainstream while carefully using the reputation and the resources that come with the office to gradually shift this mainstream further to the right. He would have used the presidential authority to make the Freedom Party and its agenda more acceptable to the political centre and thus to continue paving the way for its electoral victory. And if it had reached an all-time high in the polls at some point during his presidency, he would have called an early election.

The Freedom Party did not manage to get the presidency this time. But if one is to believe Robert Menasse, the potential for far right majorities is here to stay. One might not agree with all of his analysis, but he certainly provides a compelling explanation of contemporary Austria.

A rather worrying one.

About the author

Ragnar Weilandt is a doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick and the Université libre de Bruxelles as well as a freelance journalist working on the European Union and the greater Middle East. He co-founded FactCheckEU.org, a watchdog monitoring European politicans' statements on EU affairs. Follow him on twitter @ragnarweilandt

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