Austrian presidential elections: The end of the world as we know it? The establishment in shock after the biggest landslide in the country's post-war history

Austria's post-war political system of perpetual compromise and Grand Coalitions is crumbling down as polarization and right-wing populism is increasingly dominating the discourse in the Alpine Republic. The established government coalition parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) of Chancellor Werner Faymann, and the conservative People's Party (ÖVP), have suffered disastrous defeats.  

On the eve of the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Italy from fascism (April 25th, 1945), north of its borders a neo-fascist candidate, Norbert Hofer (FPÖ), has come out on top in the first round of Austrian presidential elections with more than a third (35%) of all votes, winning more than the candidates of both “established“ parties together. An independent-Green-centrist candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, came a distant second at just over 21%. A run-off ballot will be held between the two of them in four weeks, on May 22nd.
Presidential candidate Norbert Hofer (right) with Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, at the
notorious "Akademikerball", an annual festive meeting of far right-wing politicians and sympathizers at
Vienna's Imperial Palace. Source: ORF (Österreichischer Rundfunk, Austrian State Broadcaster)

The government coalition parties' candidates have only come in third and fourth, respectively, barely reaching double digit percentages (although in a way, they had already anticipated this, by not nominating their party leaders or charismatic personalities, but merely second- or third-rate party stooges), with an (at least rhetorically) "anti-establishment" candidate (Hofer) winning big and an independent candidate (van der Bellen) coming in second.

In what is the best election result on the federal level ever (35%) for the extreme right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the party won the first round of the presidential elections by a margin of more than 10%, with Alexander van der Bellen, a professor of economics, officially an independent candidate, but supported by the Green Party, coming in second at around 22%, thus being the candidate who will face off against Hofer in the run-off in four weeks. Although the anti-FPÖ polarization of the left-leaning voters will certainly lead to a closer race then, it is doubtful if van der Bellen can rally all of them and also especially the centrist (i.e. Christian Conservative ÖVP) voters behind him, including those of Irmgard Griss, a former judge and also independent candidate, but more right of centre than Mr van der Bellen. She garnered mostly bourgeois, rural voters, but also from Vienna's inner city as well as the rich suburbs, and came in a close third, with just under 19% of the votes, thus narrowly missing out on the participation in the run-off. Demoted to also-rans were the 
 the Social Democrat Rudolf Hundstorfer (11,3%) and the People's Party's Andreas Khol (11,1%). Richard Lugner, a(n) (in)famous Viennese construction engineer, socialite, and self-declared "Kasper" ("joker" or "court jester"), also presenting himself as “anti-establishment“, got 2,3%.

Norbert Hofer, an aviation technician, was launched as a candidate who previously was not widely known in the political sphere of Austria outside of his native state („Land“) of Burgenland, and was initially seen as a pro forma candidate even by his own party. Now he set up everyone, against all predictions and polls reaping the “grapes of wrath“ directed against the said “political establishment“ in a country that has had a penchant for right-wing populist positions for decades.

The FPÖ has successfully presented itself as an “alternative“ to the almost perpetual and seemingly monolithic coalition of the both „old“ parties (SPÖ and ÖVP), especially among low-information and rural voters, but also in previously staunchly Social Democratic, suburban “worker's districts“ of the (only major and) capital city of Vienna. Only “bohemian-bourgeois“ and/or liberal-left (17 out of 23) districts in the capital and the mid-sized (university) towns and/or state capitals Bregenz (Vorarlberg), Graz (Styria), Innsbruck (Tyrol) and Linz (Upper Austria) voted significantly for Mr van der Bellen (or Mrs Griss) and less for the FPÖ, the rest of the country “turned blue“ (the FPÖ colour; i.e. outside of cities, there were FPÖ results in excess of 40% or even 50% galore. In his home town in Burgenland, Hofer gained almost two-thirds of the vote).

One might argue that it is a sign of our times, i.e. that ten years seem enough time in our fast moving day and age for voters to forget how the FPÖ did not prove itself to be an alternative at all when it was in the federal government, along with the ÖVP, from 1999 to 2006. Back then, its results halved from more than 20% to 10% after the first three years, in the elections of 2002. Twelve years later, in 2013, despite being responsible for massive scandals in federal and state governments, such as in Carinthia (with the largest one following the 2009 bankruptcy of the Carinthian Hypo Alpe Adria Bank, a bank which since has been nationalized, which has cost the Austrian taxpayer dozens of billions of Euros, with no end in sight), it had already recovered to 20%. And the last success before yesterday was that even in (formerly?) “Red Vienna“ the FPÖ reached 30% in the mayoral elections in October of 2015, with the Social Democrats only winning that election (with just under 40%) with a large anti-FPÖ vote from many voters who are otherwise disappointed by the formerly hugely popular Social Democrats (who have governed the city ever since the war and also in the 1920s and early 1930s, before the Nazi era), as well as due to the jovial personality of Vienna's long-time SPÖ mayor, Michael Häupl (who is often described by analysts as even more powerful, or at least influential, than Chancellor Faymann, his party colleague).

The government of Austria, in the beginning following an open-border policy in the late summer, has itself “turned FPÖ“ in the asylum question, and has made a complete u-turn in the winter when it implemented an „upper limit“ on the number of asylum seekers, thus de facto abolishing the fundamental right of asylum, directly following the FPÖ line. Therefore, the government played into their hands by not distinguishing themselves on the most discussed political issue of recent months (and this has led to a (further) split within the Social Democrats).

Alexander van der Bellen, the 72-year old Professor of Economics, who came in second at 22%. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet last night's result is not merely a temporary “lapse of reason“, and it is not merely “stupid, uneducated“, xenophobic and “Nazi“ voters falling for a populist party (although they are undeniably a significant portion of the population). The FPÖ is of course (more) fascist (than the rest), and can easily be pinpointed as a scapegoat by the other parties and mainstream media and establishment. But this would be too simple of an explanation; the result (“anti-establishment“ parties strengthened) is not only due to the (anti-) asylum question.

It is also (in Austria and elsewhere) more generally due to the failure of the political system, which is increasingly one of, by and for a detached capitalist class, i.e. which has turned itself into a „market-conformist democracy“ within the last decades (as Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has formulated her ideal political system back in 2011; the word has been named “Unwort des Jahres“ (“faux pas“ word) in Germany then), in Austria, in Europe, and globally. Its main elements are “capitalism for the poor(er)“ and „socialism for the rich“. In other words, rising inequality, austerity, and, at best, stagnant, more often falling, incomes of the lower and middle classes, at the expense of an upper class enriching itself (last month's “Panama Papers“ are only the most recent example and tip of the iceberg (or icing on the cake?)), and corrupt and criminal “too big to fail“ “markets“, especially the financial sector, being pampered and “saved“ by governments out of state budgets. This hypocrisy and double standard is what producess the dilemma. To mark the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death, the famous quote from Macbeth comes to mind: “fair is foul and foul is fair“. And it has been for quite a while.

Yet even just discussing, let alone acting to implement, real alternatives, or even just a return to the “status quo ante“ (also known as “social democracy“) has been banned from mainstream political discourse. Many, not only those voting for the right-wing populists in Austria, across Europe and beyond (as the Sanders-Trump race in the US shows), sense that there is something rotten with and within this system. But unfortunately, at least in most countries, recent election results (and other events) have shown that people are mobilized to believe that their vote for „anti-establishment“ parties really can lead to “an alternative“, when in reality, those parties are even more staunchly pro-market, Social Darwinist and pro-redistribution from bottom to top, and anti-“populist“ (in the original “positive“ meaning of the word). Thus, they think they are voting “anti-elites“, in reality to be butchered by the most fascist, most reactionary, and most regressive parts of those elites. 

To summarize these points: while some of the blame can be attributed to the asylum and refugee crisis, the governing parties have also failed to counter the anti-establishment message of the right-wing populists, by neglecting the rising inequality, hypocrisy and double standards of the economic system which increasingly dominates the political sphere.

In conclusion, what are the concrete and immediate consequences, should Hofer triumph in the run-off? Contrary to popular belief, the Austrian President is not merely a representative figurehead, comparable to the Queen or the President of Germany. After being elected, Hofer theoretically could dismiss the government immediately, triggering new elections, in which his party is very likely to come out on top as well. Even if he refrains from doing so, the president decides on who gets the mandate to form a government at first after the next parliamentary elections (the next one will be in the autumn of 2018, at the latest). He can also decline a candidate for chancellor or minister (President Thomas Klestil in 2000 declined two FPÖ ministers who were deemed open neo-nazis), i.e. can have a strong influence during the period of government formation. Van der Bellen has already said that he would have strong reservations against a FPÖ Chancellor and a FPÖ-lead government. A President Hofer, on the other hand, would very likely mean that the leader of the Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, would be the next chancellor of Austria, if the FPÖ comes out strongest party. And both ÖVP and SPÖ, against the prospect of otherwise losing power, as of now are not completely reluctant to work in a coalition with them should another Grand Coalition fail to reach a majority (which, at this stage, seems more and more likely). Bleak prospects, indeed!

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