Vienna—In 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.