Can Europe Make It?

A far-right president of Austria is all but inevitable

The opposition is too weak, civil society too apathetic and far-right sentiment too strong to stop Norbert Hofer being elected President of Austria.

Reinhard Heinisch
30 April 2016

Election posters of Norbert Hofer, candidate for presidential elections of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party. Ronald Zak/PAimages. All rights reserved.When Austrian elections make the international headlines, it is often in connection with the rightwing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ).

In 2000 when it entered a coalition government as the junior partner after a smashing victory in national elections, there was international outrage. Austria’s EU partners even imposed bilateral sanctions against the government of conservatives and rightwing populists.

The hastily conceived measures largely backfired, making EU governments reticent to meddle in national politics ever since. Thus, far more serious assaults on democracy by rightwing governments in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey have gone on largely unchallenged. However, owing to incompetence at governing and internal squabbling over their political direction, the FPÖ quickly collapsed in public office. 

After massive losses in the polls in 2002, it split in 2005. Its erstwhile notorious figurehead Jörg Haider left the party along with other members of the leadership so that the FPÖ’s future looked bleak.

Yet, under the new leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the party moved sharply to the right to rebuild its base. Then, following a string of victories in regional and national elections, the FPÖ began undergoing something of an image makeover designed to broaden its appeal among centrist and especially female voters.

Strache even forced the party’s main candidate for the European elections in 2014 to withdraw after the latter had made racist remarks about an Austrian footballer star. The FPÖ leader also visited Jerusalem several times to suggest that the party’s notorious anti-Semitism was a thing of the past. Electorally, anti-Islamic and anti-Arab rhetoric is much more rewarded anyway. 

Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party candidate in Austria’s current presidential elections fits exactly with this strategy. Ostensibly amiable, mild mannered yet youthful and dynamic, he knows how to couch his controversial rhetoric in carefully chosen words.

Yet, he also understands how to send subtle signals to the party’s far right base to alleviate any concerns that, like in 2000, the party would tumble to the center and end up again in disarray. When he claims that Islam has no place in Austria, that Austrians needed to come first, and that he would refuse to sign the TTIP, Hofer finds applause in many quarters.

With Hofer as the party’s candidate for the federal presidency, the FPÖ achieved – in the first round vote - its biggest electoral triumph at the national level to date.

Some 35% of the voters opted for Hofer, especially men aged 16 to 29 (51%) and 30 to 59 (45%), blue collar workers (72%), and those with primary and secondary education (51%).

This success is owed principally to three factors: first and foremost, the general mood in the country is rather negative. About 76% of the people claim to be angry with, or disillusioned by politics. Confronting uncharacteristically high levels of unemployment, Austria is simultaneously facing 100,000 asylum applications along with the need to feed, house, educate and eventually integrate tens of thousands of refugees amidst an increasingly hostile population.

Moreover, there is widespread frustration about the government’s political performance. For nearly a decade Austria has been governed by the same Social Democratic-Conservative coalition, which has not only seen its electoral fortunes erode in election after election, but has been trailing the FPÖ in opinion polls for over a year now.

Necessary economic, social, political, and administrative reforms have been constantly delayed or their impact has been overshadowed by bickering between the two governing parties. Critics accuse them of being more interested in playing political games and pandering to clientele groups.

A host of protest formations sprung up but quickly lost momentum so that the Freedom Party has emerged as the most credible change agent. Because of its anti-corruption, anti-globalization, and anti-Islam rhetoric, it is best positioned to appeal to the large groups of Austrians plagued by anxieties about losing their identity, economic prosperity, and accustomed security. 

The second major reason for the FPÖ’s success is the refugee crisis, which is symptomatic of broader problems. The government mishandled the issue form the start by first pretending it was business as usual and denying that conditions in crammed and squalid refugee camps needed attention.

Then, the government changed course, embraced German Chancellor Merkel’s “culture of welcome” but left NGOs and armies of volunteers to shoulder much of the burden. When they became exhausted by mid fall with thousands arriving almost daily, the coalition parties began arguing publically among themselves about how to proceed but eventually took an ever more hawkish approach.

After the government had failed to stake out the centre position, it pandered first to the left and then to right. By emulating many policy measures proposed first by the FPÖ, Hofer and his party have seen themselves validated. 

Finally, the government parties ran a shockingly poor campaign featuring rather dull candidates that were clearly second choices and unable to cope with new media formats or connect with most Austrians. For example, only 4% of young men under 30 voted for the Social Democratic contender.

Hofer was by far the youngest candidate and the FPÖ overall the savviest player in the use of social media. His opponent in the runoff elections will be the 72-year old former economics professor and past Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen who is supported by the left but has also cross-over appeal to centrist voters.

Yet, he trails Hofer by some 10%, is rather too urban for people outside major cities, and clearly the less dynamic of the two. Attempts to mobilize against the FPÖ or an international campaign against Hofer would likely backfire and make his victory even more probable.

If the FPÖ candidate were to become president, he would enjoy sweeping powers and could dismiss the government. He has also articulated anti-EU positions and would likely galvanize the already eurosceptic Austrian public.

As such the country is headed for uncertain times: perhaps Hofer’s words should be taken seriously when he ominously hinted that “people will be in for a surprise.”

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