The Alternative in Austria

For now, the far right has been beaten back in Austria. But the coalition that did it can't hold.

A vandalized FPO election poster from 2008. Douglas Sprott / Flickr

The relief was palpable in Europe after last weekend’s Austrian presidential elections. Breaking the far-right’s winning streak in 2016, Alexander van der Bellen, former chairman of the Green Party, defeated the hard right Freedom Party (FPÖ)’s candidate Norbert Hofer 54 to 46 percent. The sentiment of politicians and commentators across the continent was captured by the German daily Die Welt, which opened with a picture of van der Bellen and one word: “Phew!”

The result came as a surprise to many, as many pollsters had predicted a narrow victory for Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate. It ended an unprecedented campaign, symptomatic of a political system in turmoil. It was the first time in Austria’s postwar history that neither of the traditional large parties – the Social Democrat SPÖ and the conservative ÖVP – managed to bring their respective candidates through the first round of the election in April.

It was also the longest election campaign in Austrian history. The second ballot, won with the narrowest of margins by Van der Bellen against Hofer in June, was annulled by the Constitutional Court in a controversial decision, after an appeal by the FPÖ. In October, the rerun of the second vote had to be postponed in an almost comical logistical snafu, involving German-manufactured-yet-dysfunctional envelopes meant for postal voting. In the end, the campaign lasted for almost a year, leaving many voters frustrated, and the campaigning parties’ coffers empty.

Of course, the reason this election had garnered such attention internationally wasn’t Van der Bellen, but the possibility of a politician of the hard right becoming head of state for the first time in Western Europe since World War II. After the Brexit vote, after the election of Donald Trump, the question lingered: Will Norbert Hofer’s presidency in Austria be the next step in the global Great Moving Right Show? Now, after his defeat, a new question arose: Is this the turning point, the beginning of the end of the right-wing populist surge? It would, after all, make a great story: Austria, where the journey of right-wing populism started in the 1990s, being the place where it comes to an end.

The simple answer to that question is no, even though Norbert Hofer’s defeat is a real setback for the Austrian hard right. The FPÖ has its eyes set on the parliamentary elections, which will be held in 2018. They have good chances to win those and currently lead national polls by 10 percent. In all likelihood, Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party, will be the next Austrian Bundeskanzler (head of government).

However, as I have argued before, the FPÖ’s is a long-term project: “They will aim not to be part of a government, but to “become the state.” Their dream scenario was Bundeskanzler Strache and President Hofer. With the two most powerful positions, implementing real institutional change in the state and civil society would have become much easier for the Right.

While the president in the Austrian political system doesn’t have strong executive powers, they have real influence in the formation of coalition governments, can reject ministers, and even refuse to sign bills into law (even though no Austrian president has ever made use of this power). So with this outcome of the election, the transformation of the Austrian state along the lines of the Hungarian or Russian model has become more difficult to obtain for the Right. That is something.

There are good reasons, then, to be pleased with this result. It is a blow to the Right, and it was delivered, at least in parts, by democrats, socialists, feminists, LGBT activists, and antifascists. But it should not make us believe that this means “good-bye to the shift to the right,” as Der Spiegel put it. The first and most obvious reason being that almost 47 percent of the vote went to the FPÖ candidate, which makes this the best result ever for a right-populist party in Western Europe. It shows its enormous potential, not least in the next general election.

If we look a little closer, there is even more reason to remain worried — defeating the candidate of the Right came with a heavy price for the Green Party candidate. For his campaign, Van der Bellen assembled an almost impossibly broad alliance. In the runoff election, he was endorsed by the leaders of both the social democratic and the conservative party, who currently make up the coalition government, as well as the neoliberal “Neos” and, of course, the Greens.

This means that Van der Bellen had the support of every political party represented in the Austrian parliament except the FPÖ. In this constellation, his campaign team decided to focus on those sectors of the electorate they saw as potential swing voters: Making advances to conservative voters in rural areas, and presenting Van der Bellen as the “better patriot.” Aesthetically, this translated into a PR strategy somewhere between The Sound of Music and Alpine tourism marketing. Politically, it meant pandering to the Right.

On questions like migration and asylum, but also on welfare, Van der Bellen was keen not to alienate conservative voters. In economic policies, the former University of Vienna professor has always been a defender of a “soft” neoliberal, free-market line. He supported the TTIP and CETA trade agreements (and only backtracked on TTIP when faced with massive public opposition — and attacks by Hofer, who rejects both). For these reasons, even though the liberal candidate has won the election, paradoxically, the almost yearlong campaign has rather contributed to the general shift to the right, towards nationalism and anti-welfare policies, in public discourse.

One blatant example for this was the position taken by Profil, Austria’s biggest weekly news magazine. Its editorial board unanimously decided to endorse Van der Bellen on their front page. At the same time, Profil’s chief editor, Christian Rainer, published an editorial entitled “Justice for Austrians.” In it, he argues for cutting benefits for migrants and refugees who were granted asylum. In an open violation of the rule of law, he proposed making migrants’ access to basic rights dependent on their “integration progress” (which, ironically, would include refugees’ “complete acceptance of democracy and liberalism”).

If we take one more step back to look at the role of this election in the political conjuncture in Europe, it becomes clear that it is not a reversal, but rather a confirmation of the “populist moment,” from which the Right is currently able to benefit. This moment is characterized by a deep social, cultural, and political crisis — a “crisis of hegemony,” in which class positions are under threat, relations of political representation become fragile, and cultural forms fragment.

This experience of crisis is articulated by the Right’s political forces as an antagonism between “the people” and an “elite” which is concerned about everybody — migrants, Muslims, homosexuals — besides for the “real people.” This populist split is then mobilized to foster a cross-class alliance for hard-right politics, where the desire for the restoration of order “from below” is linked with the authoritarian, racist, and sexist imposition of order “from above.” This is the conjuncture in which parties like the FPÖ — or, for that matter, a campaign like Donald Trump’s — can thrive.

In Austria, the highly polarized runoff vote for the presidency has confirmed and strengthened this constellation. Norbert Hofer presented himself as the anti-establishment candidate, challenging an all-party-coalition against him. That the FPÖ has no policies to offer to those most severely affected by the crisis hardly matters in this case. Symbolically, Norbert Hofer represented both change and the restoration of order, and it worked. According to post-election polls, up to 85 percent of voters who self-identified as “blue collar workers” voted for Hofer. In the absence of a left challenge, the hard right, once again, managed to claim the role of systemic opposition for itself.

Having said all of this, socialists should be careful not to make the narrative of the populist right of representing the interests of “ordinary people” their own. It is true that certain segments of the working class — especially those employed in declining industrial sectors, especially older workers, and especially those identifying as “native” Austrians — make up a key element of the cross-class electoral alliance conjured up by the Right. However, they are neither “the ordinary people” nor “the working class.” Many other working people — especially in the service and public sector, especially younger, and especially those subjected to racism — chose not to align themselves with the Right.

Special attention should also be given to gender relations: Among men, Hofer had a solid lead of 56 to 44 percent, while women voted 62 to 38 for Van der Bellen. What this election, just as the successes of the populist right before, calls for, among other things, is a detailed class analysis, which takes into account the complex social and political composition of the subaltern classes. It would have to include cultural factors, questions of gender as well as racist exclusions within these classes. And it would have to take a close look at the spatial dimensions of the right-wing project.

A stark urban-rural divide has already been noted in analyses of the Brexit vote in Britain, and in the recent US presidential elections. In Austria, this trend has continued. Although Van der Bellen managed, thanks to his campaign focus, to make significant gains in the conservative alpine regions of Western Austria, his victory is grounded in his support in the cities. In the three largest cities — Vienna, Graz, and Linz, he gained two thirds of the vote. Hofer’s strongest results came from rural regions in the southern provinces of Styria and Burgenland.

A particularly interesting post-election analysis discovered a strong relation between population development and votes for Hofer: the higher the population decline in a region, the higher the percentage of votes for Hofer. Those regions who have gained more new residents — including through migration — in the past years were much more likely to vote for Van der Bellen. This confirms the overall picture that the hard right manages to attract those who experience decline. The “Left” — represented, in this case, by a liberal economics professor, has little to offer to them.

Finally, it is worth noting that just as Hofer isn’t representing “the working class,” neither was Van der Bellen just the elite’s candidate. Parallel to the Green candidate’s official campaign elements of a real grassroots campaign emerged. Sometimes as part of the official “Team VdB,” sometimes self-organized, many thousands of volunteers were active, often despite being unhappy about the way van der Bellen chose to run his campaign. Among them were socialists, feminists, greens, LGBT activists, as well as many people who hadn’t been actively involved in politics before. This certainly played a part, especially in urban areas, to bring out voters for Van der Bellen who otherwise perhaps hadn’t bothered to vote.

If Hofer’s defeat is to become the starting point for new efforts against the shift to the right, these activists would have to become part of the efforts to rebuild the Austrian left. But to be successful, they would have to break out of the impossible social-democrat-conservative-liberal-green alliance, which barely managed to keep the hard right from the president’s office. They need to find their own organizational forms, with those parts of the Left willing to work together, and develop an alternative political project to challenge the right’s bid for hegemony.