Austria: The Lesson of the Far Right

Campaign posters for far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, Nickelsdorf, Austria, May 3, 2016
Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
Campaign posters for far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, Nickelsdorf, Austria, May 3, 2016

Could Austria become the first Western European country since World War II to have a far-right president? Amid the shock over the Brexit vote, few have noted the extraordinary sequence of events that have played out in this wealthy social democracy. On May 22, Norbert Hofer of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party lost the race for the Austrian presidency by around 31,000 votes to Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party. On June 8, the Freedom Party contested that result, alleging several irregularities, among them the premature opening of mail ballots and the release of election data to the media too early. In fact, there was no evidence of manipulations having changed the outcome. But on July 1 Austria’s Constitutional Court nevertheless ruled that the election would have to be repeated. Thus the Freedom Party—a party that was once described as a “party of former Nazis for former Nazis”—will have a second chance at the presidency in early October.

Just why has the far right done so well in Austria in particular? The country enjoys one of the highest per capita income levels in the EU, has an extensive welfare system, and has benefited enormously from the opening to Eastern Europe since 1989 (Vienna used to be shabby compared to Berlin; now it’s the other way around). Nor has Austria, until now, suffered from the devastating terror attacks that have afflicted France and Belgium. Picking up on Pope Paul VI’s praise of Austria as an isola felice, the country’s most important post-war political figure, long-time Chancellor Bruno Kreisky (in office 1970-1983), called it an “island of the blessed.” Nonetheless, the Freedom Party has been growing in Austria for more than two decades. If there were Austrian parliamentary elections today, the far right would win.

The Austrian Constitutional Court’s decision to redo the presidential election was aimed at removing even the shadow of a doubt about the legitimacy of the result. But the rise of Austria’s far right, and its ability to contest—and possibly win—highest office in a country without major economic or social problems, tell us at least as much about the new shape of politics in Europe as the UK’s decision to leave the EU. As the Austrian case makes clear, the success of populist parties cannot be reduced to a single explanation. Above all, the country provides an object lesson in how mainstream parties seeking to confront the rise of populist politicians can end up further strengthening them.

In many respects, the Freedom Party seems to draw on the same forces that are feeding its counterparts elsewhere. Hofer, an aeronautical engineer by training, soft-spoken in public but uncompromising in his authoritarian-nationalist views, is very much of the new generation of European right-wing populists: like Marine Le Pen, he presents himself as a defender of freedom and democracy against the European Union; like Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, he is now calling for a referendum on EU membership; and, very much like other right-wing populists, Hofer has strictly opposed opening Europe’s borders to refugees and adopted anti-Islam rhetoric. Similar to the National Front in France, Hofer’s Party is drawing growing numbers of workers away from the Socialists, who in the eyes of their former constituents have made too many concessions to free trade and immigration.

But the Freedom Party’s seemingly unstoppable rise can only be understood against the background of the peculiar political system created under the Second Austrian Republic after 1945. For the entire postwar era, Austria was always governed by one of the two large parties, the center-right Christian Democrats or center-left Socialists—or, often, both at the same time, when they formed a grand coalition, as is the case today. The writer Karl-Markus Gauß once joked that someone growing up during these decades may well have thought that the Austrian constitution reads: “Austria is a Republic which is governed by a grand coalition.” This tendency to form joint governments, which had no parallel elsewhere in Western Europe, served a very particular purpose: to secure stability in a country that had long been characterized by deep divisions between a “red” left-leaning Vienna and a “black,” conservative Catholic, countryside. Extreme polarization between these two factions had resulted in a brief civil war in 1934, before the installation of a Catholic authoritarian regime and then the Anschluss by Hitler in 1938. 

In post-1945 Austria, the red and the black were determined to avoid this kind of conflict through a system of proportional representation in virtually all spheres of social and political life—hence the ubiquitous term Proporz to describe the Austrian approach. They effectively outsourced much policy-making to “social partners”—unions and employers’ associations—who worked out deals that were then rubber-stamped in parliament. This arrangement had partly been inspired by the very ideal of social harmony promoted by the Catholic authoritarian regime in the 1930s. Such an approach took for granted that virtually all voters would be able to identify with one of the two main parties. As the contemporary writer Robert Menasse once observed, Austrians had to wonder whether they actually lived in a democracy, given that, whatever the election outcome, there never seemed to be an opposition. 

Opposition to the two-party system eventually arose in the form of a young, charismatic nationalist named Jörg Haider. Haider had been an assistant professor of law before turning full-time politician. He objected to what he regarded as the privileges of the red-black elite, who controlled all aspects of public life from elementary schools to Alpine hiking associations, and he stridently opposed Austria’s immigration policies. In 1986, he seized the leadership of the then-small Freedom Party with a coup at the party’s congress. Adopting the slogan “Austria First,” Haider initiated a nation-wide petition calling for a constitutional amendment specifying that Austria was not a country of immigration (the petition failed). Later, he gained international notoriety for praising the successful employment policies of the Third Reich and for calling SS veterans “men of character.” (He himself was, in his own words, a Nazikind; both his parents had been ardent National Socialists.)

Crucially, unlike Germany from the Sixties onward, Austria never underwent a comprehensive process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming-to-terms with its Nazi past. Instead, Austrians clung to the misleading idea, formulated by the Allies’ Moscow Declaration of 1943, that their country was the “first free state to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression.” Christian Democrats and Socialists were fully complicit in perpetuating this myth; what is more, for purely opportunistic reasons, they turned a blind eye to the political rehabilitation of former Nazis. In 1949 the Socialists encouraged the formation of the “Association of Independents” (VdU), from which the Freedom Party (FPÖ) emerged, with the cynical calculation that another right-wing option would drain support from their main opponents, the Christian Democrats. When Simon Wiesenthal uncovered the SS past of a Freedom Party leader in the mid-1970s, Socialist Chancellor Kreisky, who was eyeing a coalition with the FPÖ, attacked Wiesenthal, going so far as to suggest that Wiesenthal might have been a Gestapo collaborator. Kreisky was Jewish and had once been faced with election posters that portrayed his Christian Democratic opponent as a “real Austrian.” But not only did Kreisky put national unity and stability first; he also occasionally hinted that making deals with the former Nazis was no worse than collaborating with the Christian Democrats, who, after all, were the heirs of the authoritarian regime of the 1930s and who, infamously, supported the former Wehrmacht officer Kurt Waldheim in his successful presidential run in 1986. 

The Freedom Party always endorsed Deutschnationalismus, centered on the dream of unification with Germany (an option that had been popularly endorsed in 1919, after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but was rejected by the Allies at the time). Haider, a complicated, celebrity-seeking, and in many ways self-destructive character, followed in this tradition. The Austrian media portrayed Haider literally as the devil in magazine features—knowing that a Haider cover, just like a Trump story today, would always sell better. Thus, they also kept Haider perpetually at the center of national attention. In fact, even though he never served in the federal government, Austrian politics revolved around Haider for at least two decades, and his party succeeded in pushing the government further to the right on immigration and other issues.         

Jörg Haider, former leader of the Freedom Party, paying tribute to Austrian Nazi veterans, Ulrichsberg, Austria, October 1, 2000
Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos
Far-right leader Jörg Haider paying tribute to Austrian Nazi veterans, Ulrichsberg, Austria, October 1, 2000

Haider achieved his greatest triumph in 1999, when the FPÖ drew 27 percent of the vote and came second in the national elections. The Freedom Party entered a coalition with the Christian Democrats, who, despite receiving less support, got to nominate the Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel. Haider was kept out of the government, but everyone assumed that he would control his party from behind the scenes. There were major street protests in Vienna against bringing the far-right into government—an arrangement that had no parallel in Europe at the time. Ministers had to enter the presidential palace for their swearing-in ceremony through underground tunnels instead of walking over from the Chancellery across the Ballhausplatz, as had been the tradition. Other EU countries ostracized the right wing government, with unintended consequences. Chancellor Schüssel convinced even the opposition parties that plucky little Austria—proud of its neutrality during the Cold War as much as its self-declared status as a “cultural great power”—was being picked on unfairly. On the far right, Deutschnationalismus now gave way to a new Austro-patriotism with a heavy anti-EU flavor (Haider and his party had initially supported joining the Union, but then reversed their stance.).         

Haider could deal with street demonstrations and sanctions, but the one thing he couldn’t cope with was not being at the center of attention. He seceded from his own party and founded a new right-wing movement before dying in a car accident in 2008. His old party benefited from both his defection and death: in power, FPÖ had proved enormously corrupt (especially in Haider’s home state, Carinthia). This should have damaged their claim to be a real alternative to the Proporz system. Instead, all problems could now be blamed on the deceased Haider. 

Today, Austria is once again governed by a “grand coalition,” though there’s nothing very grand any more about the two parties from which it is formed. In 1975, over 90 percent of votes went to Christian Democrats and Social Democrats; in the presidential elections this spring, their candidates could barely get above 10 percent each and, as a consequence, were eliminated from the second, decisive round of the contest. Apart from the fact that both the red and the black candidate proved uninspiring, it clearly hurt them both that their government, under pressure from the Freedom Party, completely changed course on refugee policy. Social Democratic Chancellor Werner Faymann had been Angela Merkel’s most steadfast ally in the fall; by March of this year, he effectively closed the borders. By contrast, the mayor of Vienna, Michael Häupl, a Social Democrat, resolutely stuck to his pro-refugee stance and won the city election last fall, even though an FPÖ victory had been predicted. 

As so many politicians trying to imitate far-right populists have learned the hard way, pandering rarely works. Citizens who support the new populism will in the end prefer the original to the copy, while those who favor a more humanitarian stance will turn away in disgust. This is also one of the lessons from the Brexit debate: parts of the Tory leadership effectively made Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, the central figure of British politics and tried to outdo him in Euroscepticism. Once they conceded that the referendum really was about saving freedom-loving England from the undemocratic designs of a “distant Brussels,” it seemed ludicrous to persuade people to remain in the EU because leaving would make them 4,000 pounds worse off per year.           

The Austrian case suggests that the decline of mainstream parties does not have to spell doom for democracy. Hofer’s opponent in the final round of the May 22 presidential election, Van der Bellen, was an economics professor supported by the Green Party. The Greens, who are in favor of further European integration, have the lowest level of working class support among all parties, but benefit from the fact that Vienna—a city featuring pictograms of same-sex couples for its “walk/don’t walk” traffic lights—has a large bourgeois-bohemian population that endorses them. They are also the only major Austrian party that has never made any tactical concessions when it comes to condemning both the Nazi past and the continuities with interwar authoritarianism.

The presidential election situation that arose in Austria in May and will be repeated in October—a run-off between the Greens and the far right—has never occurred in Europe before. But it starkly reveals a fundamental political conflict that can be found in many Western democracies today. This conflict is not meaningfully described as one of “ordinary people versus the establishment.” In Austria, both the Freedom Party and the Green Party have been “established” since the mid-1980s; in Britain, Boris Johnson, one of the main faces of the Brexit campaign, is about as establishment as one can get in the UK; and Donald Trump is hardly the authentic representative of Main Street. Rather, on one side of the new conflict are those who advocate more openness: toward minorities at home and toward engagement with the world on the outside. On the other side we find the Le Pens, Farages, and Trumps: close the nation-state off by shutting borders and thereby, or so they promise, take back control; but also, preserve the traditional hierarchies that have come under threat on the inside. “Make America Great Again” means above all: “Make sure white males rule again.”

It is often misleadingly suggested that there are growing numbers of populist, or “anti-establishment,” voters on both sides of this conflict, and hence they must share crucial political or moral characteristics. But only one side denies the pluralism of contemporary societies altogether. Only right-wing populists claim that they alone represent what they call “the real people” or “the silent majority”—and that, as a consequence, the defenders of openness and increasing pluralism must somehow be illegitimate. Hofer confronted Van der Bellen with the statement that “you have the haute-volée, I have the people behind me”; Farage declared the outcome of the Brexit referendum a “victory for real people” (thus rendering the 48 percent who voted to stay in the EU somehow “unreal.”) Donald Trump has said so many offensive things over the course of the past year that one remark at a rally in May passed virtually unnoticed—even though that statement effectively revealed the populism at the heart of Trump’s worldview: “The only thing that matters,” he said, “is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything.”

Since “the real people” are a myth conjured up by populists, actual election outcomes or opinion polls can always be questioned in their name. If the populist candidate loses, it is not because he or she is not as popular as anticipated; it is because the “real people” have not yet spoken—or worse, have somehow been prevented from expressing themselves. It is not an accident that populists so easily resort to conspiracy theories or rush to contest election outcomes. Yet the Austrian constitutional court was right to order another ballot; otherwise, the FPÖ could have persisted with the claim that its candidate was somehow robbed of victory by illegitimate elites scheming behind the scenes. 

Whatever the outcome of the revote, it would be wrong to conclude that Austria will from now on be polarized between the Greens and the far right—though the very clear division between Van der Bellen’s support in cities and Hofer’s in the countryside is indeed reminiscent of the twenties and thirties. It might have been a good thing that the presidential vote offered a clear choice in May and will do so again in October: citizens are debating with each other openly and political conflicts are no longer taboo. Several Austrian Chancellors in the past—including Kreisky—wanted it to be known that Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities was their favorite book. Austrian politicians have specifically quoted Musil’s term Möglichkeitssinn—a sense of possibilities. That the country was the first ever to elect a Green president—and might do so again in October—shows that not all the news from Europe these days has to be bad. Austria demonstrates the real perils of far right-populists, but also the more hopeful possibility of fresh political forces to counter them.