The near victory of Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria’s presidential election has sent shockwaves around Europe. These have only partially been diminished by the revelation that Hofer, who led by a 52-48 percent margin on election night, actually lost to his Green Party opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen, by a margin of 30,000 votes once postal ballots were fully tallied.
Far-right parties have been enjoying an upsurge in support across Europe in recent years, but it has been rare for them to make it into government — and rarer still for them to make headway in electoral systems that do not use proportional representation.
The United Kingdom Independence Party managed to win only a single seat in the Britain’s Parliament in 2015 despite earning more than 13 percent of the vote. In France, the Front national came first during the initial round of regional elections this past year only to fail to win a single region when those races went to runoffs. Hofer’s achievement is therefore momentous in that he not only came first in the initial round of the presidential race with 35 percent but very nearly prevailed in the second round, when every other major candidate and party united against him.
Superficially, this is a reaction to the intersection of the migration crisis with the structure of Austrian politics. Given its geographical location, Austria has borne the brunt of the flow of refugees making their way to Germany.
The impacts of this have been increased by the relative poverty of the Balkans and the hostility of the Hungarian government. This makes Austria the first nation that refugees transit where they actually desire to settle.
Initially, the Austrian government adopted a liberal policy, imposing no cap on asylum requests and even forcing towns to settle refugees against their will. This generosity provoked a populist backlash, just as it has elsewhere in Europe, but in Austria both major parties suffered.
This is because the ruling coalition, like the German one, consists of the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People’s Party. Grand coalitions are not unknown in Austria. Indeed, it was governed under one from 1945 to 1966. But the presence of the conservatives in the government, and the support of the opposition Greens outside it for an even more liberal policy, left Austrian voters opposed to it with no choice but to back Hofer’s nationalists, whom polls have shown commanding around 33 percent support compared with 22 to 24 percent for each of the ruling parties.
Hofer’s success came within this context. The Austrian presidency is a largely symbolic position, but that has not prevented elections to it from becoming symbolically important. The decision of former United Nations secretary general Kurt Waldheim to seek it in 1986 briefly made Austria the center of the political world.
Looking at 2018
This year another wrinkle was added. Not only did the presidential race function as a referendum on the public’s view of the governing parties, whose candidates received about 12 percent each; it allowed the public to weigh in on the next government.
With the Freedom Party polling in the mid-30s, it is likely there will be only two possible governments after the 2018 elections.
As the grand coalition is likely to lose its majority, any effort to continue it would require extending its membership to include the Greens. Yet for the People’s Party, which is already seeing its support flee to the far right due to the perception that it wields little influence over refugee policy, the prospect of spending another five years in a government even further to the left promises little except political disaster.
The alternative would be the unthinkable: for the conservatives to form a coalition with the Freedom Party.
This is far from unprecedented. Unlike many other populist parties in Europe, Austria’s has been in government before — with the Social Democrats during the 1970s and 80s and with the conservatives from 1999 to 2006.
Yet in those cases, the Freedom Party participated as the junior partner. Even when they won the same number of seats as the center-right did in 1999. If the far right easily wins the most seats, as the polls now predict, it would claim the chancellorship for itself.
That prospect had a direct bearing on the presidential election. Van der Bellen promised during the campaign that he would never appoint Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache as chancellor, no matter the result of the next parliamentary election.
Not to be outdone in promises to use the powers of the ceremonial presidency in a manner of dubious constitutionality, Hofer then declared that he would consider a victory tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in the current government and dissolve parliament to call early elections.
In effect, the major issue of the campaign was not so much the merits of the two candidates, but rather the attitude of the voters to the prospect of a future Future Party-led government.
Van der Bellen has won, albeit by the narrowest of margins, and it will remain to be seen if he can follow through on his promise when and if it comes due in 2018. But, implicitly at least, 49.7 percent of Austrian voters indicated that, even if they might not want Strache as chancellor, they can live with a far-right government.
There are uniquely Austrian aspects to this election: the historical weight of the Nazi legacy, questions about how that legacy weights on the Freedom Party and attitudes toward the European Union in general and Germany’s Angel Merkel in particular.
One of the major controversies erupted when Hofer claimed during one of the debates to have visited the Knesset in Israel, which came as news to both the Austrian media and to Israel’s diplomatic representatives in Vienna who denied it had taken place only to corrected by Jerusalem which confirmed that not only Hofer but Strache as well had been received “unofficially” in the Jewish state.
That controversy likely says a lot about how the rise of the populist right is forcing even Israel to change its policies and how Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government is bypassing the traditional civil service in implementing those changes. It may even have cost Hofer the election, given the miniscule margin.
Ultimately, the Austrian presidential election was not about antisemitism or even about migration directly. It was about the actual nature of the populist right. Is its rise a threat to European values to be resisted at all costs? Or a legitimate political movement that deserves the same treatment as any other, including the right to take office?
Austrians split almost equally on that question. And that is a huge win for the new right.