After twelve months of campaigning, two rounds of elections, and a repeat ordered by Austria’s Constitutional Court the former head of the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen, won the Austrian presidency earlier this month, defeating Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the radical, populist right, 54 percent to 46 percent.
The clear-cut victory has a political and symbolic importance that goes beyond Austria. The message is clear: the rise of the radical, populist right can be stopped.
Van der Bellen’s victory was carried by an improbable electoral coalition of Greens, liberals, Social Democrats, Christians, moderate conservatives, and left-wing forces. In the days before the election leading individuals from the governing parties joined them.
Thus Van der Bellen paradoxically embodied both the internationalist, democratic movements, which formed last year around the arrival of ninety thousand refugees in Austria, and the political establishment of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP), which have increasingly adopted the radical right’s agenda in a rearguard battle against them.
The catastrophic showing for the SPÖ and ÖVP, neither of whose candidates managed 25 percent in the first round in April, signaled the end of the government system as we had known it. An opposition party candidate was required to ward off its total collapse for the time being. And this was clearly the intention: 64 percent of voters cast their ballot for Van der Bellen to block Norbert Hofer.
As federal president, Norbert Hofer would have had the power to force a reelection of the parliament and usher in what the chief commentator of the Viennese daily Der Standard termed the “Orbánisation of Austria.”
The Freedom Party (FPÖ) is a right-wing nationalist party, characterized by its racism and particularly its Islamophobia. However, in one essential detail its nationalism differs from others — it is not a nationalism based on its own nation. It represents the German-national tendency of the Austrian right which, after having compromised itself by its involvement with Nazism, had for decades been consigned to the margins of political life.
In its current party program the Freedom Party considers Austrians whose native language is German to be a part of a German “ethnic, linguistic, and cultural community.” The party sees an independent Austria as an historical accident, or a “communist invention,” as Jörg Haider once formulated it, alluding to the Austrian-national resistance to German occupation carried out by communists.
This outlook connects the FPÖ to the influential subculture of the German Burschenschaften (student fraternities) — Hofer belongs to the Buschenschaft Marko Germania — “tradition clubs,” and new-right periodicals, which in turn are sounding boards for right-wing radical and neo-Nazi political agitation in the country.
Their relationships to German nationalism and Nazism objectively counterposes the Freedom Party to the constitution of Austria’s Second Republic and the postwar European order. This does not necessarily have to have short-term effects but, with a crisis in the European Union and the rise of the radical right in Germany, German nationalism imparts a special political character to the Freedom Party’s anti-Europeanism.
This is the Freedom Party’s “hidden agenda” that keeps its hard core together and binds intellectuals and cultural milieus to it.
As the results of the presidential election show, Austria is not the far-right country that it is often portrayed as. It is instead an example of how two decades of neoliberal austerity policy have made European democracies precarious.
In this respect, the Freedom Party is a right-wing radical party of the “new type,” belonging to the same group in the European Parliament as the National Front, the Northern League, Gert Wilders’s Party for Freedom, and the Flemish Vlaams Belang. They combine an authoritarian concept of society with a nationalist worldview and a populist political style. This politics only works when there is a demand for it arising from a crisis of democracy.
In Austria’s presidential elections, the exit polls showed that the Freedom Party’s opponent had a majority of women, secondary-school and university graduates, white-collar employees, and public-sector workers, whereas Hofer drew his voters mainly from less educated male workers, whose vision of the short- and medium-term future is the most negative.
And they have every reason to feel that way. A long-term decline in wages has led to social inequality previously unknown in postwar Austria. In the decade since the outbreak of the financial crisis conditions for what can be called the “lower-middle” strata has noticeably worsened. The unemployment rate rose from 5 percent to 9 percent; pension payments will drop by about 25 percent. Future prospects are also diminished for the growing number of part-time and atypically employed workers.
Eurobarometer data shows the dissatisfaction of Austrians with this situation, aligning closely with the European trend: 54 percent of Austrians say that things “are going in the wrong direction” (compared with 48 percent in the European Union as a whole), 62 percent “do not have trust in the national government” (66 percent in the European Union), and 43 percent profess to being “unhappy with democracy in my country” (45 percent EU-wide).
But it would be wrong to interpret the growth of the populist right as a “class vote.” First of all, because the published data does not permit comprehensive statements about the class composition of the electorate. The vote shares are not broken down according to income levels or categories like “entrepreneurs,” “executive employees,” or “asset owners.”
The Freedom Party is not a working-class party: it enjoys considerable support among the ten thousand wealthiest people in Austria, a well-kept secret from which the veil is occasionally lifted. In a recent example, the conservative Viennese daily Die Presse reported on the Freedom Party’s growing support among members of the exclusive Association of Austrian Industrialists.
It is often difficult to correlate material conditions to voting behavior because interpretation of one’s own conditions and needs mediates between the vote and the condition. However, what does clearly come through are the contours of a politico-cultural division within society.
The three strongest electoral motivations were:
- Van der Bellen: “He would best represent Austria abroad” (67 percent); “pro-European outlook” (65 percent); “has the right understanding of the office” (59 percent);
- Hofer: “understands the problems of people like me” (55 percent); “is competent” (55 percent); “can effect important changes” (54 percent).
The two weakest electoral motivations are:
- Van der Bellen: “understands the problems of people like me” (28 percent); “can effect important changes” (28 percent);
- Hofer: “best represents Austria abroad” (35 percent); “can act in a bipartisan way” (31 percent).
One half of voters think democracy (“the right understanding of the office”) and internationalism (“best represents Austria abroad”) are decisive, whereas the other values social empathy (“understands our problems”) and change.
The right-wing populist cleavage — between supporters of a liberal democracy who abandon populations to the mercilessness of the market and those who for this reason turn their backs on liberal democracy — has hardened in Austria. We can be justifiably pessimistic about what is to come. Even for those optimistic on the Left, Van der Bellen’s victory can only be seen as breathing space rather than a solution to the crisis of Austrian democracy.
The Freedom Party has suffered a setback but it would be wrong to think that the dynamic that produced it has been broken. Its candidate, opposed by almost the entire establishment, got 46 percent of the vote. In contrast to Van der Bellen, most people who voted for Hofer did so not because they wanted to impede his opponent but because they wanted his politics to win.
The rise of the Freedom Party in the last quarter of a century demonstrates the inadequacy of the strategies adopted against them. From the activism of radical left groups, for whom antifascist street-fighting is equivalent to the struggle against the capitalist state, to social democrats who play down the danger of, or even embrace, the FPÖ’s xenophobic agenda; to demonizing the party in the liberal press and attempting to build a cordon sanitaire of political correctness.
The latter strategy has been so watered down by the Freedom Party’s electoral success that even Social Democrats are considering forming a government with the FPÖ as an alternative to the worn-out coalition with the conservatives.
The solution to the crisis lies outside the Social Democratic Party. Instead, what is required is the construction and development of an alternative political force that not only criticizes the dominant system but challenges the monopoly of the radical right’s opposition to it. Unfortunately, this conclusion still does not amount to a political project.
Developing a new force would require a critical examination of the Left’s previous strategy, not only in Austria but internationally in all those places where the radical right is rising, shifting the emphasis from moral condemnation to political struggle.
Bernie Sanders rightly pointed out in his first statement after Trump won the White House that the president-elect had tapped into a real and justified anger. We need to acknowledge the validity of social concerns, stemming from crises to which people are not given adequate political responses.
It has often been said that the decisive battleground with the far right is the overcoming of mass unemployment and precarity in working and living conditions. The Left must not only raise these demands but propose feasible strategies. This means a break with the system on both the national and European level: a socio-economic transformation.
We must counter the claim of the populist right to be “anti-systemic.” In substituting an authoritarian “Führer-state” for liberal democracy they, in fact, function to prevent resistance at a time when popular democracy is being distorted and depleted by the political establishment.
The immediate task is to defend these democratic expressions — and this cannot be done in alliance with the ruling forces who aim to erase political rights won through struggle by the working class. The Left must oppose their project, allying instead with forces that defend the democracy in liberal democracy, without becoming liberals ourselves. Similarly, we should never become nationalist, but must see that defending democracy on the national level is not identical with nationalism.
It is evident that in its present shape the European Union is part of the problem and not the solution. However, choosing between democratizing the nation-state and strengthening transnational democracy accepts a false dilemma. The most powerful response to the radical right would be a program of integration to establish democracy on the European level while respecting the self-determination of its national components.
The most difficult issue in this respect is the ethical dimension of the refugee crisis, which is presented in mainstream discourse almost through camera obscura. We are told that Europe, a region of 500 million people, finds it difficult to integrate 1.5 million refugees arriving at its borders. But the real problem of the coming decades will be how to integrate a Europe which has not abandoned its colonialist supremacy into a world populated by 10 billion others.
The struggle against the far right must therefore embrace a cultural revolution, a “catharsis,” in the sense that Gramsci wrote about in the Prison Notebooks. Europe’s societies can only emancipate themselves under the aegis of a new common sense, without which progress is impossible and atavistic regression, the aim of the far right, cannot be prevented.
Today’s struggle against the populist, radical right is a war of position. The candidate of the radical right has been beaten in a small European country. This is not the end of the war, but it allows us to believe that we can win.