Van der Bellen’s Victory Sends Message to Other Countries

Openness and pro-European sentiment can win, but only by mobilizing the whole center and left.

Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen speaks with voters in Klagenfurt, April 6
Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen speaks with voters in Klagenfurt, April 6 (Facebook)

Alexander Van der Bellen told a news conference on Sunday night he will be an “openminded, liberal-minded and above all a pro-European president” of Austria, adding that his triumph over the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer sent a “message to the capitals of the EU that one can win elections with high European positions.”

Clearly — but this is no time for those of us who are openminded, liberal-minded and pro-European to get complacent.

Van der Bellen nearly lost the first time around, in May, when the result of the election was invalidated because absentee votes had been counted too early.

He only won the second election on Sunday by mobilizing the whole Austrian center and left.

This isn’t over

Similar coalitions between erstwhile foes — for example, between free-market liberals and social democrats — will be needed to keep the populist-nationalist axis at bay. All the while center-right parties must pry cultural and social conservatives away from the nativist right.

Hofer still got 47 percent support. Many conservative Austrians would have rather seen a far-right president than one from the center-left. The same is happening in other countries: what Jonathan Haidt has calledstatus-quo conservatives” are being lured into an alliance with populists on the right, because they feel progressives are subverting the nation’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political action is only way they can stand athwart history anymore yelling “Stop!”

This fight isn’t over. As I argued here the other day, we in the West have taken liberal norms and institutions for granted. They must be defended — and in some cases adjusted if we are to heal the divisions in our society.

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