Reaching Out and Holding Ground

Reaching Out and Holding Ground

Austrias recent presidential election was reduced to a facile narrative about the rejection of far-right populism, but the real story is more complicated.


ViennaIn the week before the second round of the Austrian presidential election, more than a few newspaper and magazine articles published in Europe and the United States speculated that a victory by Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right FPÖ, or Freedom Party of Austria, would prove that the country still couldn’t deal with its Nazi past. Then Austrians went to the polls, and something predictably odd happened. When the results started to pour in on the evening of December 4, indicating a decisive victory for Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old economics professor and former leader of the Green Party, the talk about Austria’s lingering Nazi past became a murmur. Suddenly, the story of Van der Bellen’s impressive 6 percent margin of victory was not about the specter of Nazism but rather the rejection of far-right populism—as if Austria had gone overnight from being a safe haven for former Nazis and their sympathizers to a beacon of liberal democracy. But reducing the election to facile narratives, either about the country’s unwillingness to confront its past or its sudden blitz against exclusionary right-wing politics, doesn’t help to explain Van der Bellen’s win and what it might mean for other countries struggling to combat a right-wing populist surge.

Austria being Austria, the subject of Nazism was hardly absent from the campaign. Less than a month before the election, Ursula Stenzel, a prominent FPÖ politician, claimed on television that Van der Bellen’s late father was a Nazi. The accusation was baseless, and when in the final TV debate before the election Van der Bellen called it an FPÖ dirty trick, Norbert Hofer took offense, calling Stenzel’s charge “a serious foul” and complaining that he and his father have also been defamed by being linked to Nazis.

Hofer’s one-two punch—claiming to be the victim of smear politics and distancing himself from any associations with National Socialist ideology—is consistent with the general strategy of his party, which under the leadership of Heinz-Christian Strache has sought to present itself as the voice of the working and lower-middle classes worried about unemployment and a declining standard of living. The FPÖ has worked hard to rehabilitate its image from the 1990s, when it was the party of Jörg Haider, who attended annual reunions of SS veterans and praised them as “men of character.” Under Strache, the FPÖ has avoided rubbing shoulders with Nazis, all the while cloaking its racist and exclusionary policies under the pretense of addressing the social problems avoided by other parties. Sometimes that has meant inventing the problems themselves, as was the case with a shelter for asylum seekers in Vienna. In February, local FPÖ activists spread rumors about some of its tenants raping an elderly woman. The ghost of Haider may have been laid to rest, but the FPÖ still resorts to slander campaigns and the exploitation of social fears.

On election night, when Hofer’s loss was certain, a TV host alluded to the supposed pro-Nazi sympathies of his party. Strache took great offense, fuming that “all 47 percent of Hofer’s voters could not possibly be Nazi sympathizers.” Although his remark was tactical, Strache did have a point: By reducing the FPÖ to a collection of “former Nazis,” one not only alienates FPÖ voters who might otherwise have been persuaded to vote for different, perhaps more progressive political programs, but also fails to counter its populist propaganda.

Moreover, to reduce the FPÖ’s message and strategy to a convoluted promotion of Nazism is also to ignore the enthusiasm of the party’s leaders for a no-less-unsavory right-wing strain of Austrian politics. As Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi, the grande dame of Austrian journalism, pointed out in September, Hofer and Strache are ideologically at home among the so-called “German national” right-wingers. This movement, which has existed since the revolutions of 1848, has questioned the legitimacy, openness, and pluralism of the late Habsburg empire and had advocated for Anschluss, or the union of Austria and Germany to form a Greater Germany, long before Hitler did. It, too, has its traditions and symbols, one of which is the blaue Kornblume, a blue flower that has been worn on some occasions by Hofer and Strache in order to stress their allegiance to this pan-Germanic reactionary tradition. (As it happens, Nazis also wore die blaue Kornblume.) At a time when support for the populist and xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland is growing in Germany, die blaue Kornblume is a scarier and more potent political symbol than the imagined threat of the FPÖ hiding SS veterans at its national headquarters in Vienna. The Germany praised by Hofer and his allies is the country envisioned by the AfD.


To say that a disproportionate amount of attention was paid during the Austrian presidential campaign to the candidate of the far right would be an understatement. Van der Bellen was much more difficult to label, and so the international press was less interested in him, even though, in the first round of the presidential election in April, he finished second to Hofer. In the days before the December election, both The New York Times and Die Zeit ran stories about Hofer and none about his opponent.

How is it that Van der Bellen could win nearly 54 percent of the vote in the second round, given the electoral triumphs of populist far-right parties in Central Europe, the rise of Euroskepticism across the continent, and the fact that, thanks to the United States’ Electoral College, a xenophobic demagogue is poised to enter the White House? The answer is important beyond Austria’s borders. Of course, there are no simple recipes for a successful electoral campaign that could be easily replicated in different countries, regardless of their political traditions or specific electoral practices. But even though Van der Bellen’s quite successful attempt to reclaim the notion of Heimat, or homeland, from the FPÖ might not have much appeal beyond Austria, his campaign still offers a few interesting lessons that could be taken up elsewhere.

First of all, Van der Bellen’s victory confirms the importance of defending traditionally understood democratic institutions. In Austria, the president first and foremost fulfills the function of representing the country in international relations. In July, the Austrian Institute for Social Research and Consulting (SORA) conducted a nationwide survey asking which candidate would represent Austria abroad most effectively. Fifty-five percent of respondents chose Van der Bellen. In December, “Better representation abroad” turned out to be the most important concern for Van der Bellen’s voters; in a postelection SORA poll, 67 percent of respondents named it as one of the five most important reasons for choosing him. Hofer’s voters valued altogether different things—that he understands their concerns (55 percent), “is competent” (55 percent), and is “against the political system” (54 percent). Although the statement is open to charges of condescension, it seems clear that the more citizens understand and accept the requirements and constraints of the political office they are voting to fill, the less probable is the victory of a populist candidate.

Moreover, voters who understand the importance of stable democratic institutions do not appreciate it when populists try to take advantage of the system while also claiming to be against it. The second round of the presidential election was repeated in December because the first attempt in May, which Van der Bellen won by six-tenths of 1 percent, was contested by the FPÖ on the grounds of alleged massive ballot irregularities. The Constitutional Court annulled the results, even though in strict legal terms a new vote is necessary only if it’s clear that irregularities influenced the outcome, which was not the case in May. In the December vote, Hofer was much less successful than Van der Bellen in attracting people who hadn’t voted in May, and more people who voted for him in the earlier election decided to stay at home than in Van der Bellen’s case. It seems that at least some of them were punishing Hofer and his party for trying to game the system.

Demagogues may use xenophobic, racist, and exclusionary rhetoric, but those tools become their own platform. With demagogues, voters opt for certain aspects of a candidate’s personality or image that they think will “guarantee change” or make the candidate “incorruptible.” In this sense, they are a bit like members of a religious cult, as faithful as they are vague. In a pluralist society—and Austria has become very diverse over the last quarter-century, first when it accepted refugees fleeing the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and later when it opened itself to immigration from other European Union countries after joining the EU in 1995—members of a cult can form just one (albeit possibly large and internally diverse) interest group. Their outreach to other segments of society remains limited.

Van der Bellen’s victory confirms the importance of attempting to speak to voters outside of one’s own ideological bubble. He managed to attract many more supporters of different candidates from the first round and secured endorsements from the left and center-right, including Chancellor Christian Kern (of the Socialist Democratic Party) and Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner (of the conservative Austrian People’s Party). Something similar happened in the 2002 presidential election in France, when a broad spectrum of political forces united against Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National.

But the true novelty of Van der Bellen’s outreach effort was his decision to appeal to rural and small-town voters on the terrain of Heimat without altering his main message: openness, the unquestioned membership of Austria in the EU, and working closer with European partners to solve common issues like the influx of migrants since 2015. Reaching out while holding ground at the same time paid off. Van der Bellen improved his vote tallies from May in 2,053 of 2,100 Austrian counties and flipped 280 of them in his favor. Hofer flipped just two.

No less important to the outcome is the fact that the vote in December was much more about Austria’s place in the EU than it was about Austria’s response to refugees. The results of the Brexit referendum in June made the December vote seem like it was taking place almost in a different epoch. As Armin Thurnher, the editor in chief of the Viennese weekly Falter, observed ironically in the week before the election, the Austrian “public doesn’t want to leave the EU, but it also doesn’t want to hear any praises of the EU.” And he was right. When it comes to the European Union, Austrians seem to want to have their Sachertorte and eat it, too. The results of a recent Eurobarometer survey, conducted in May 2016, show that 47 percent of Austrians think their country would “better face the future outside of the EU,” but 69 percent are in favor of the European common currency and 51 percent believe that their “voice counts in the EU.” Van der Bellen’s victory, and his unapologetic defense of Austria’s EU membership and the necessity of closer cooperation within the European Union, might prove just enough to awaken Austrians from their much-beloved but unrealistic dream of neutrality within the European community.

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