This election’s close call is the shake up Austria needs


Picture of Alexander Klimburg
Alexander Klimburg

Programme Director at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies

Alexander Klimburg is Associate Research Fellow at the Austrian Institute of European and Security Policy, and a Director at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies

For most pro-Europeans, it was the quintessential optimist-or-pessimist choice. On the evening of 22nd May, Austrians were told not only that the Presidential election between the Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer and Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen was too close to call, but that the projected final tally – including all absentee ballots – was razor thin at 50.0% to 50.0%. Only a few thousand votes might make the difference, leaving many to wait anxiously for the absentee ballots to be counted the next day.

In the end, instead of a victory of the far-right candidate and an ominous ‘expansion of the Putin-Zone’ into Western Europe, as the leftist newspaper Der Falter wittingly put it, Europe got its first Green head of state. For some, there was a whiff of a closely-fought Armageddon battle in the air, albeit one tempered by Sacher-Torte and Melange. Although the battle was ultimately won with a margin of around 0.6%, the question of how to interpret the election is, like the result itself, largely split down the middle.

For the pessimist among pro-Europeans, the big news is certainly that the far-right seems to have been spectacularly successful at the ballot box, and this could mark a European trend. Many in the Freedom Party gloated that the support for Hofer showed that the stigma of voting for them was rapidly declining, and that the much more important parliamentary elections due by 2018 will clearly reflect that shift. Indeed, polls taken before the presidential election consistently showed that the Freedom Party was comfortably in first place, with the mainstream, and currently governing, parties of the Social and Christian Democrats together facing a slow but consistent collapse of popular support. And indeed, in the first round of the Presidential elections, both of the mainstream parties’ candidates were eliminated in a complete humiliation that clearly gave credence to one of the strongest of all possible voter motivations: ‘rage against the system’.

In the end, instead of a victory of the far-right candidate Europe got its first Green Head of State

A more optimist view, though, is that this rage may have its limits. The Freedom Party achieved its success by showcasing the seemingly most moderate of all its possible candidates. Norbert Hofer was a smiling face who communicated the soft side of the party – quite unlike party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, whose increasingly sharp suits and supposedly presidential bearing have done little to diminish his favoured snarling form of discourse. Hofer also attempted to clearly distance himself from Austria’s Nazi past, a commitment that many thought somewhat unbelievable given Hofer’s past and present flirtations with the extreme right. Indeed Hofer greatly moderated his tone on a number of topics that his party had traditional been highly vocal on. And, no matter how believable this shift, it undeniably had a significant impact on his electability among swing voters, who were largely motivated by the perceived of lack of progress of the mainstream parties rather than the more basic anti-European and anti-everything instinct that the far-right feeds off. This clearly underlined how much more important real, tangible grievances over suspected lack of political reform were compared to basic emotive topics, such as the refugee situation. The Freedom Party was clearly surprised at how well it did in the elections with this new soft side, and may be revising its own strategy and tone. Although some observers rightfully warn that this new strategy might be nothing more than a trick and caution against letting the party out of its political isolation, Strache recently took the unusual step of chastising some of his supporters for ugly comments on his Facebook page.

If indeed the swing voters are motivated more by resentment than outright racism, they too can be brought back into the political mainstream. Austria’s long-serving Chancellor Werner Faymann resigned in the wake of the first round of elections, and this blood sacrifice may even have served to mollify some such anti-establishment voters. Faymann’s successor Christian Kern wasted no time in promising a ‘new deal’ to Austrians, basically politics that will not follow the old ‘clientelism’ of the past, and which promises instead to deliver wide-scale reforms in a number of areas where they are long overdue: healthcare, pensions and the labour market. As voters had clearly indicated that their anti-establishment vote was primarily based on fears of economic and social decline, just doing the job they were initially elected for might stop the rot of the mainstream parties.

If indeed the swing voters are motivated more by resentment than outright racism, they too can be brought back into the political mainstream

Unfortunately for Austria, the tradition of consensus-based politics has meant that strong opposition can be expected from virtually every corner, from the powerful social partners (representing industry and the unions), but most importantly from the increasingly-muscular federal Laender, whose influence has long exceeded their constitutionally-assigned roles. This opposition is already forming, and it remains to be seen if the government’s ‘new deal’ will have a life outside of the government’s communications department.

For Austria as well as many countries in Western Europe, the cosy neo-corporatist relationship has long been a source of stability and strength. It can remain so. But first, those social partners must re-learn the responsibility of power, and exercise restraint where necessary. And second, the political leadership needs to free itself from the preference to ‘lead from behind’ that the consensus approach inevitably favours. As Angela Merkel has shown, the appearance of strong principled leadership from the start can also be rewarded by the electorate, even when it reflects an unpopular stance. But this has to happen from the start; Francoise Hollande’s travails over the French labour market reforms show that the electorate are unlikely to give credence to a late change of heart.

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