Photo by Eben Marks. Some rights reserved.On April 24, Austrian voters delivered a shock to the political system. Every Austrian president since 1945 has been from or backed by either the Social Democrats or the People’s Party, the two of which have governed Austria in a grand coalition almost constantly since the war.
That changed this year. The candidates of the two establishment parties barely broke the 10 per cent barrier in the first round. Instead the final vote on May 22 is between Green-backed Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer from the far-right Freedom Party. Hofer came first by a large margin and looks well placed to win, but it is not a foregone conclusion.
It’s clear that Hofer’s age (at 45 he is decades younger than his rivals) is a real strength. A poll of people who voted in the first round, carried out by research organisation SORA, found that Hofer voters were most likely to ascribe his “youth” and “dynamism” as a reason they chose him. However Hofer isn’t just a young person’s candidate. He led among voters of all age groups with the exception of women under 30, the only group to choose Van der Bellen.
As an older left wing outsider with many young supporters, it’s tempting to view Van der Bellen as a Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn type figure. But in talking to young Austrians I didn’t see much to suggest a groundswell of enthusiasm for him.
Alex, a 20 year old student born in South Africa and now an Austrian citizen, told me “the motivation behind voting Van der Bellen is to stop the Freedom Party”, though he also liked the 72 year old’s “humanitarian side”. This was echoed by Katrin, 29, from Upper Austria, who said “people will vote [against] the candidate they think is the most away from their [own] political view”.
For Van der Bellen to beat Hofer he will need to take a large proportion of votes from people who supported one of the eliminated candidates or didn’t vote in the first round. Cornelius, 29, from Bregenz in western Austria and now living in Washington DC, has created a Facebook page encouraging his friends to vote.
He says that “Austrians only take action when things are getting serious.” and he created the page because “I want to avoid that my friends are beyond regret not having voted.” Cornelius isn’t using Facebook to endorse one candidate over the other, and when he told me about a role model for getting young people engaged in politics it wasn’t Alexander Van der Bellen but the 29 year old conservative Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz.
If Van der Bellen does beat Hofer, the far right challenge won’t be over in Austria. A general election is due in 2018 and another disastrous performance by the Social Democrats and People’s Party would see the Freedom Party enter government, perhaps even lead it.
In some ways it seems strange for Austrians to be so unsettled. It remains one of the world’s richest and most comfortable countries. There are problems though. Unemployment creeps higher every year. A small number of shocking crimes committed by refugees have been heavily reported and made an impression on many Austrians.
And years of grand coalition have frustrated people on the left and right, but there is little outlet for this frustration. As David, a 25 year old who works for Vienna’s Social Democrat group, told me: “We only have one protest party: the Freedom Party. So if you will protest you will vote right. There is no left protest in Austria.”
While Austrians remain angry at their government, the Freedom Party will continue to benefit unless there is a serious left wing alternative. A Van Der Bellen victory would be an important, but small, step towards achieving that.