Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann resigned on Monday, two weeks after his Social Democratic Party’s candidate placed a distant fourth in the presidential election.
Faymann, who governed for nearly eight years at the head of a grand coalition with the conservatives, recognized that his own party had lost faith in him, saying, “The government needs a new start.”
But unless his successor — who can be named by the parties without the need for snap elections — makes a clearer choice as to where the Social Democrats stand, he or she may not do much better in stemming the party’s declining popularity.
Faymann’s downfall was triggered by the migrant crisis that has bedeviled leaders across Europe.
Faymann tried to have it both ways. He first sided with his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees to enter Europe, many of them through Austria. But when public opposition mounted, he reinstated border controls and made a pact with neighboring Balkan countries to slow the influx.
The reversal angered Faymann’s left-wing supporters and was too little, too late to stop Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party candidate, taking 35 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election last month, the highest the nationalists have ever got.
Hofer may yet be defeated in the second voting round this month if centrist and left-wing voters unite behind the Green party candidate.
But the longer-term trends that have manifested themselves in Austria’s immigration debate do not bode well for Faymann’s party.
The dilemma of Austria’s Social Democrats can be understood within the context of what Andrew Sullivan, a British blogger, has called Europe’s “red-blue culture war” over modernity. I argued here last month that this conflict is playing out inside traditionally pro-worker, center-left parties.
“Red” voters — patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society — for decades tolerated the social liberalism and pro-Europeanism of their “blue” party leaders in return for policies that helped them, like the minimum wage, pensions and unemployment insurance.
Now that the welfare state is complete, or even in retreat, social democratic leaders can no longer hold up their end of the bargain.
What’s happening in Austria is happening across Northern and Western Europe.
Working-class voters are flocking to nationalists on the right who promise to protect the welfare state from immigrants and globalization.
Middle-class voters with relaxed social views are drawn to either increasingly moderate center-right parties or, in the case of Austria and Germany, Green parties that have become more pragmatic in recent years but without appearing unscrupulous.
The social democrats’ position in the middle has become untenable. The longer they refuse to take sides in the “culture war”, the more supporters they will disappoint.