Last Sunday, Austrians were voting for the second time to elect their president. The past elections, in May, had been annulled by the constitutional court following irregularities in the counting procedure in several constituencies. Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green politician who ran as an independent, had then won the elections with a very small margin of 31000 votes ahead of the extreme right wing candidate, Norbert Hofer, from the Freedom party (FPÖ). Sunday’s vote resulted in Van der Bellen winning 53.3 per cent of the vote to Hofer’s 46.7 per cent.
The atmosphere was tense in Austria and everywhere else in Europe as Hofer’s victory would have been the first election of an extreme right wing president in Western Europe since the second World war. The FPÖ is indeed a very controversial party in Austria; on the one hand, it carries a very strong neo-Nazi image and holds xenophobic ideals, while, on the other hand, around 35 % of the population supports it – making it the most popular party of the country. It has notably participated in various governments with the social democrats between 1983 and 1986, and with the conservatives between 2000 and 2007, illustrating the double standards of some mainstream parties and the growing “dediabolisation” of the party within the country. Dediabolisation has indeed been one of main characteristic of the extreme right wing parties’ recent rise in Europe. The term has been widely used in France where Marine Le Pen has tried to give her party, the National Front, a more acceptable image than the one carried by her father, the founder of the party.
“[His] victory is a heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism” Martin Schulz
Hofer has been highly criticised during his campaign by most European mainstream political actors and media for attracting voters on the back of a populist discourse. Likewise, for many observing this election, the results served as an important “test of populism” – the outcome of which might worryingly demonstrate a growing political trend in Europe toward the far-right. Many feared that Hofer’s victory could encourage similar parties in the coming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Illustratively, on Sunday the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, congratulated Van der Bellen on Twitter, referring to this tendency: “[His] victory is a heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism”.
After Brexit and Trump’s elections, the word “populism” has indeed been used and misused to explain the unexpected vote of millions of citizens. The term “populist” is controversial; Populism is a polymorphic construct: it changes its targets according to its goal. It corresponds to the use of demagoguery and cleaving discourse that promises the people the defence of their interests while taking into account their difficulties. This term can therefore encompass many different trends and behaviour. Many critics have hence rightly claimed that we could not categorize dozens of political actors and political discourses under one umbrella; under one label. They argue that if we wanted to combat politicians’ attempts at gaining votes by simplifying complicated issues through generalisation and stereotypes, we should not generalise their support-base ourselves.
« [Populist]claims to represent the silent majority, the forgotten, “the real people”.
Yet, labelling and generalising is often necessary to understand trends. Indeed populism takes many forms, but it has one simple and general design that can help us understand its mechanisms and flaws. Firstly, it claims to represent the silent majority, the forgotten, “the real people”. Secondly, it claims that the people’s problems and fears are based on simple issues that the elite has refused to take into account. Finally, it proposes solutions to those issues that don’t bring “the people” together but divide and oppose them. It is indeed the exploitation of people’s fears and nature of the solutions proposed that are the most distinguishing and problematic marks of populism.
The recent populist trend in Europe is characterised by this exact model: political actors – more often from the extreme right than the extreme left – claim that the people have been forgotten by their government; a government which instead favours the European Union (EU) and refugees over them. By pointing towards these problems, those parties are exploiting the fear of being left out from a globalising and changing world. Their solutions are straightforward, divisive and dehumanising of much of the population, both within the country and without. They want to go backward, to that time when the “true people” had the power. They encourage a collective pessimism based on the idea that we are heading in the wrong direction. They don’t want external actors, notably institutions, to have a say in the in the internal life of the country. And more importantly, they don’t want external actors, notably refugees, to have a place in the country and change its dynamic.
« It gives dangerously easy answers to disillusioned people ».
Yet, we cannot simply “go back” to that time (if that “time” ever existed). We live in a globalized world where Unions with other countries is not an option, where migration has always been fundamental in the advancement of our species, and is not a process that will simply “disappear” – it will even probably increase. Promising that isolation and individualism are values that will make countries “great again” cannot bring about anything positive; the only thing it will likely achieve is polarization. It gives dangerously easy answers to disillusioned people.
For more information on populism you can check our manifesto here.
Populism in Austria
Hofer’s rhetoric almost perfectly fits the definitions mentioned above. He has endlessly claimed to represent the real people arguing against Van der Bellen: “you have the haute-volée, I have the people behind me”, which really reminds us of Farage’s statement following Brexit referendum a “victory for real people”. Similar to Farage in Britain or Le Pen in France, he has also claimed that Austrian leaders were steering the country in the wrong direction: that Islam, the EU and globalisation were threatening the country’s values and its future. He has used Austrians’ worst fears in order to make them listen to him.
As mentioned in the definition, his solutions are looking backward, to a faux “golden era” when “real Austrians” had “real power”. His solutions are therefore simple: he is strictly against the opening of Europe’s borders to refugees and has adopted a strong anti-Islam rhetoric. He has also proposed a referendum on Austria’s membership with the EU if its integration or enlargement were to be extended. Division seems to be for him the key to success.
His vision of society and his solutions are indeed simplified for the purpose of this article as it would need to be much lengthier to summarise his ideas properly. It is also important to remember that millions of people have voted for him and, similarly, millions of people have voted for Trump and for Brexit. Dismissing these votes as “the vote of the uneducated” would be the worst thing to do. As this “populist trend” is growing, we should not spend all of our energy discussing the consequences of the vote on our societies but on the causes that made citizens choose their candidate. Hofer has indeed managed to convince electors from very different backgrounds: not only the xenophobes hoping to “protect their culture”, but also those left behind in the rural areas, the unemployed in the cities, and the employed who are simply scared of a different future.
Conversely, Van der Bellen had the lowest level of working class support among all parties and found his backing came from women (62%), young people and urbanites. More than 60% of people living in cities of over 200 000 inhabitants (Vienne, Graz, Linz, Innsbruck, Salzburg) voted for Van der Bellen. On the contrary, rural parts of Austria turned out en-masse for Hofer.
Hence his support is following a similar trend to the national front in France; he manages to attract more and more working class individuals – those starting to be disillusioned with the liberal policies that have characterised recent political history in those countries. Yet, Austria is currently doing better than France. It enjoys one of the highest per capita income levels in the EU and has an extensive, well-functioning welfare system. Another key factor differentiating them is their history, and to understand a country’s issues, understanding its past is necessary.
Austria’s historic legacy
Since 1945, Austria has always been governed by one of the two largest parties: either the center right Christian democratic party – the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) – or the center left Social Democratic Party; sometimes both at the same time, as is the case today. Austria is in fact the only country in Western Europe that forms a joint government that often. The reason is societal: the country has for long been characterised by polarisation between the “red” left leaning capital, and the “Black” conservative and catholic countryside. Division between the two factions had resulted in a brief civil war in 1934 before the Catholics installed an authoritarian regime followed by Hitler’s Anschluss in 1938. After the liberation by the Allies, and to avoid future conflicts, the “Red and Blacks” decided to set up a system of proportional representation in almost all sphere of the country’s political and social life.
They managed to work hand-in-hand on most important issues with social partners, whether unions of civil society who negotiated deals that were then agreed upon by the Parliament. Such an approach ensured harmony for decades but was based upon the assumption that all voters would be able to identify with one of the two parties. At the end of the 80s a minority started to oppose this two party system. Jörg Haider, a young, charismatic nationalist started to object to what he called the red-black elite. In 1986, he became leader of the then-small Freedom Party. He adopted the slogan “Austria First,” and started a nation-wide petition asking for a constitutional amendment in order to specify that Austria was not a country of immigration (the petition failed). He eventually gained international notoriety for calling SS veterans “men of character”, and calling himself a “Nazikind” [Nazichild]. The FPO has since carried with it Nazis connotations.
« Austria has never undergone a process of memory and reconciliation in order to come to terms with its Nazi past ».
The Nazi legacy is interesting in Austria because, unlike Germany, Austria has never undergone a process of memory and reconciliation in order to come to terms with its Nazi past. Instead, many Austrians have held on to the idea that their country was the first free state to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression and have learned how to perceive their nation as victim rather than bully. The two main political parties have played an important role in perpetuating this myth and often turned a blind eye to the political rehabilitation of former Nazis, accepting and even ‘dediabolising’ the FOP’s neo-Nazi and xenophobic rhetoric, legitimizing it, and accepting the party within the government.
Today Austria is governed by one of these “grand coalitions” but citizens are not feeling represented by those two parties anymore. In 1975, over 90% of votes went one of the 2, in the presidential elections last spring their candidate did not get above 10% each and were eliminated at the 1st round. This turn of events, where mainstream parties are in the decline, is interesting as it won’t necessarily spell doom for democracy. Van der Bellen’s victory gives us hope that a fear of the future can indeed lead citizens to vote for positive change rather than a return to the safe past.
Lessons for Austria (and for Europe)
While the situation in Austria is special because of its history, the division between urban and rural areas mentioned before is dangerous because it is becoming a growing trend in many European countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark Finland or Italy. It was also one of the characteristics of Brexit and of Trump’s elections. It shows that “populist discourses” are not just based on some xenophobic ideas focusing on a certain theme, but are actually interpreted by many citizens as a real project encompassing all societal issues thanks to what they interpret as a protecting vision.
The election highlights a widening class divide and while it gives us hope that the weakening of the mainstream parties makes room not only for extreme parties but also for constructive and positive parties, it reminds us that years of polarization within society are hard to forget.
« The presidential results will hopefully buy some time for Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat, and his government to improve their understanding of their electorate’s expectations, hopes and fears ».
Finally, one should not forget that Austria’s federal presidency is a mostly ceremonial post. While Hoffer could have made constitutional changes to shape the society, the parliamentary elections that could organise the elections earlier than planned in 2017 will be the most important elections. So far, polls show the FPÖ ahead of the two governing parties, with its leader Strache as potential Chancellor. The presidential results will hopefully buy some time for Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat, and his government to improve their understanding of their electorate’s expectations, hopes and fears.
For more information:
Libération (2016) “Autriche, de l’espace pour l’Europe” le clivage entre villes et campagnes devient de plus en plus significatif éclipsant ou relativisant toutes les oppositions socioéconomique habituelles available at : http://www.liberation.fr/debats/2016/12/07/autriche-de-l-espace-pour-l-europe_1533692
Le monde 7 décembre : « En Autriche, l’échech de Norbert Hofer ne met pas un terme au populisme
McLaughlin (2016) Are the Austrian FPO party really Neo Nazis ? NewStateman. available at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/10/are-austrian-fpo-party-really-nazis