Austria’s established political order is finished
Alexander Van der Bellen, a staunchly pro-European candidate backed by the Green party, triumphed in the second round of Austria’s presidential elections, with 50.3 per cent of the vote. After postal votes were counted, he won by 31,000 votes out of almost 4.6 million ballots cast.
Mr Van der Bellen beat Norbert Hofer, a candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), who received 49.7 per cent of the vote, the highest share of the vote for a far-right candidate in nationwide European elections since the defeat of Nazism in 1945.
Mr Hofer was the favourite after he came top with 35 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential contest on April 24th. Mr Van der Bellen, however, managed to rally centrist voters behind him. He received 1.3 million votes more than in the first round.
Mr Hofer tapped into voters’ concerns that migrants can overburden the educational and health-care systems and exacerbate unemployment. He had strong backing in rural areas and smaller towns as well as among blue-collar, lower-income workers.
Last year, Austria’s Social Democrat Chancellor Werner Faymann followed Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and opened the country’s doors for asylum-seekers from Syria and elsewhere. About 1 million passed through Austria on their way to Germany and other destinations like Sweden in 2015, 90,000 people applied for asylum in Austria. Measured as a percentage of the population, Austria took as many refugees as Germany (more than 1 per cent of the population). Under growing pressures from public opinion and a coalition partner, the centre-right People’s party (ÖVP), Mr Faymann abruptly changed the policy towards refugees early this year. The government imposed border controls and capped the number of asylum-seekers allowed in, brushing aside objections from its EU partners. Balkan countries followed suit, which eventually led to the closure of the so-called Balkan route used by refugees to move to northern Europe. Mr Faymann’s pandering to political pressures didn’t pay off. Voters credited the far-right FPÖ for pressuring Chancellor to change the course in the migrant and refugee crisis.
Mr Hofer’s electoral showing indicates the FPÖ’s popularity and the weakness of Austria’s centre. Candidates from two mainstream parties – the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the ÖVP – secured a combined 22 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential contest. Support for the mainstream parties, which have together dominated Austria’s politics since the Second World War, has been eroded by declining wages, rising unemployment and voters’ fears over immigration and multiculturalism. Mr Hofer’s first round win prompted the resignation of Mr Faymann, the EU’s longest serving head of government after Angela Merkel.
Austria’s presidential elections also show that populist parties don’t only flourish in recession-hit countries, but also in counties, which are prosperous, secure and stable. Austria is one of Europe’s richest nations. Public finances are in better shape than many of its European peers, though income tax and social security contributions to the labour cost are above the OECD average, which undermines Austria’s competitiveness. The unemployment rate stands at 5.9 per cent, well below the EU average. Economic growth is stable, but not impressive (the economy grew 0.4 per cent in the first quarter from the previous three months). Many Austrians, however, think that they are doing less well than in the past and the country’s prosperity is threatened by globalisation, free-market competition, immigrants and asylum-seekers.
The FPÖ, which was formed by former Nazi SS officers in the 1950s, has exploited anti-establishment, anti-immigrant sentiment and growing disillusionment with the European Union. If the parliamentary elections were held today, the FPÖ would win, with more than 30 per cent of the vote, about 10 per cent more than for the SPÖ and the ÖVP. If support for the party remains unchanged, Heinz Christian Strache, the FPÖ leader, will make a bid for the chancellorship in 2018, when the next elections are due.
Europe’s traditional mainstream parties – the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right Christian Democrats – are in full retreat as voters’ dissatisfaction with governing elites is on the rise across the continent. Established political parties don’t have a strategy how to regain trust of the people and counter the rise of populist parties, which offer easy solutions to complicated problems.
In France and the Netherlands, the right-wing, populist parties are leading in opinion polls. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, will almost certainly make it through to the presidential run-off next year, like her father in 2002. The anti-EU Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) would win the parliamentary elections, if it were held today, with about 30 per cent of the vote. In Germany, the anti-immigrant, anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) failed to cross the 5 per cent threshold to enter parliament in 2013, but the party is now steadily gaining support, polling at around 10 per cent nationally. In Poland, the ruling religious-nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) under Jaroslaw Kaczynski is trying to undermine the balance of power. Support for the PiS is at around 40 per cent. The PiS’s backers are generally those who have not benefited from EU membership and strong economic growth of recent years. The far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats (SD), which once had ties to neo-Nazi groups, won 13 per cent of the vote in the 2014 elections, becoming the third-largest party in parliament. Sweden is governed by a minority coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green party. The SD holds the balance of power in parliament. The anti-immigration Danish People’s party (DPP) is propping up the country’s centre-right minority government. The populist, eurosceptic Finns party is part of a governing coalition. In Greece, the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party, whose insignia resembles a swastika, is the third-largest force in parliament. Support for the far-right, antisemitic Jobbik party in Hungary is hovering around 15 per cent.
Southern Europe has seen the surge of the far-left. The radical left Syriza won 35.5 per cent of the vote in September 2015, an 8 per cent lead over the second-placed conservative New Democracy party (ND), promising to represent ordinary people’s interests against elites, both domestic and European. In Spain, the anti-austerity, anti-establishment Podemos party has broken the dominance of the establishment conservative People’s Party (PP) and the centre-left Socialist party (PSOE).
photo: Universität Wien / CC BY-NC 2.0