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Austria’s Incredibly Narrow Escape From Neo-Fascism

Dispatch from Vienna, where a closely contested presidential election may be a bellwether for an increasingly xenophobic Europe

Liam Hoare
May 23, 2016
Photo: Hans Punz/AFP/Getty Images
Top candidate Alexander Van der Bellen (L), supported by The Greens, and Austrian right wing Freedom Party (FPOe) top candidate Norbert Hofer (R) are pictured before the start of a TV-Confrontation in Vienna, on May 15, 2016. Photo: Hans Punz/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Hans Punz/AFP/Getty Images
Top candidate Alexander Van der Bellen (L), supported by The Greens, and Austrian right wing Freedom Party (FPOe) top candidate Norbert Hofer (R) are pictured before the start of a TV-Confrontation in Vienna, on May 15, 2016. Photo: Hans Punz/AFP/Getty Images

Austria has dodged a bullet after voters elected the Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen to be their next president over the nominee of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Norbert Hofer. In a contest that sharply divided Austria along gender, educational, and geographical lines, Van der Bellen beat Hofer in the closest presidential contest in Austrian history. Thirty years after Kurt Waldheim—a former member of the SA and an accomplice to Nazi war crimes in Serbia as a Wehrmacht intelligence officer during the Second World War—was elected to the same post, Austrian voters narrowly prevented a neo-fascist from entering the Hofburg.

On Sunday at 17:00 when the polls closed, the race was too close to call. Supporters at the Van der Bellen election party swung wildly between joy and angst as estimates of the count came in. At 19:00, the state broadcaster ORF projected a dead heat, 50-50, with Van der Bellen ahead by just 3,000 votes. The raw vote count published that night by the Interior Ministry had Hofer ahead 51.9 percent to 48.1, but this did not include absentee ballots, which in Austrian elections traditionally favor left-leaning candidates. Only after these were counted on Monday afternoon did it become clear that Van der Bellen had eked out the narrowest of victories: 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent. Hofer was able to chalk up huge wins in his working-class home state of Burgenland and the FPÖ’s heartland in Kärnten, among male voters and those with a vocational education. His ascent mirrors that of other populist, far-right candidates including Donald Trump. The results from the first round showed that Hofer did much better with men compared to women (45-27 percent) and those with a vocational education versus a college degree (51-15 percent). But Hofer’s political base is to be found among the Arbeitern, the working class, where 72 percent of voters turned to Hofer, compared to 5 percent for his rival, who won the major cities of Graz, Linz, Salzburg, and Innsbruck, as well as the capital, Vienna.

Van der Bellen—the cigarette-smoking, genial 72-year-old former Socialist and professor of economics—had the support of the new Chancellor of Austria Christian Kern, Mayor of Vienna Michael Häupl, and former President of the Supreme Court Irmgard Griss and was especially popular with female voters as well as the young and college educated. This, and the prospect of the far-right candidate winning the presidency for the first time, was enough to mobilize voters across the country to vote for him. The Green candidate’s victory will keep this high office out of the hands of the FPÖ for one six-year term, if not two, since incumbent presidents traditionally win re-election.

The Austrian press on Monday covered what center-right Die Presse called the “stalemate” in the race for the presidency. In their lead article, the editor of Die Presse Rainer Nowak argued that regardless of the result, the rift in the Austrian electorate that this result exposes will remain, making it a harder country to govern. Liberal Der Standard led with, “Postal ballots decide presidential election,” noting the race was Kopf an Kopf, neck and neck, with the absentee votes still to be counted. The freesheets were less eloquent. “President Alexander Van der Hofer” read Heute, while Österreich went with “Es wird arschknapp”—it was bloody close.


Friday night is when German television broadcasts heute-show. It’s basically a copycat version of The Daily Show: a satirical take on the week’s news, albeit with a certain German sense of humor. Before the second round of Austria’s presidential elections, as a sign of the amusement and condescension with which Germans view their cousins to the south, they sent a correspondent to Vienna to interview folks on the street. A elderly couple ends up telling him, “We need a little … ” gesturing with their hands. “A little, not a big … ” “Hitler?” the correspondent asks them. The couple laughs. “You said it, not us,” they reply while walking away.

Hofer, his campaign posters would have one believe, was the “voice of reason” in Austrian politics, the “one in the center of life” who believed “the law emanates from the people.” An aeronautical engineer before entering politics and a proud gun enthusiast, Hofer—who uses a cane, a consequence of a paragliding injury sustained in 2003—cast himself as the moderate against Van der Bellen, whom the FPÖ branded a “leftist.” Austria was littered with these unbelievable posters, showing Hofer’s handsome, distinguished face, slightly pained smile, forward gaze, and combed salt-and-pepper hair.

This populist presentation, however, obscured murkier elements of his career in the world of the Burschenschaften, traditional student fraternities associated with greater German nationalism. These fraternities, Dr. Bernhard Weidinger of the Documentation Center of the Austrian Resistance explained, have grown in importance under Heinz-Christian Strache’s leadership of the FPÖ. Members of Burschenschaften lead seven of the nine regional branches and make up half the parliamentary faction. Four years ago, Hofer joined a Burschenschaft in the state of Burgenland, partly out of political expediency, but one would not associate oneself with this toxic ideology if one did not tolerate or sympathize with it.

Hofer is also part of Strache’s inner circle, along with only three or four other FPÖ figures. “I can’t think of any conflict between them,” Weidinger said. “The perception is that they are politically on the same page. They communicate the same political stances,” although Hofer does so in an easier manner, compared to the irascible FPÖ leader. Strache—who recently visited Israel—once posted a cartoon on his Facebook page “that depicted a fat banker with a hooked nose and six-pointed star buttons on his sleeve … gorging himself at the expense of a thin man representing ‘the people.’ ”

It is clear, then, that the FPÖ contains elements of neo-fascism, anti-Semitism, and greater German nationalism. The party appeals to these elements from time to time through the Burschenschaften and the anti-Semitic, revisionist journal Aula. But like other parties in their ideological camp including France’s Front National and Germany’s Alternativ für Deutschland, the FPÖ’s support has broadened, as they have become more of a far-right populist and nationalist faction. Strong indicators that someone will vote for the FPÖ today are “attitudes towards immigration and attitudes towards the European Union,” Professor Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik (assistant professor at the University of Vienna’s Department of Government) told me, as well as “dissatisfaction with the political system.”

Although the working class is a shrinking part of the electorate, Hofer’s success among these voters says something about “the structural transformation of the Austrian political system,” Ennser-Jedenastik said. Once, the working class voted en masse for the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), but today the impact of globalization, migration, and Europeanization has shifted the parameters of political debate away from one purely about economics to include social and demographic questions—including immigration. “That produces a demand for a combination of political positions that is provided by populist, radical right wing parties.”

Hofer’s success also indicates an absence of opprobrium attached to voting for the far right, associated with Austria’s collective failure to come to terms with its role in the Second World War and the Holocaust and incorporate responsibility for those events into national identity and the political culture. In Austria, we see that “they didn’t acknowledge until quite late that they played a part” in the Holcaust, said Pia Hagenbach of the Austrian Union of Jewish Students (JÖH), and that “people don’t know anything about Judaism” or have much awareness of Israel or anti-Semitism. The union recommended its members not vote for Hofer.

“There was never a clear consensus on a non-cooperation policy toward the far-right” among Austria’s other political parties, Weidinger said. The SPÖ and Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) used the FPÖ “as a token in negotiations.” On the societal level, it was never established that as unsatisfying as one may find the political center, “voting for the FPÖ is not an acceptable option.”


Van der Bellen’s extraordinary victory constitutes a considerable shift in the Austrian political landscape. “We’ve seen a decline in partly loyalty and party identification,” Ennser-Jedenastik told me. “Young people are far less likely to have a connection to one party and are more likely to vote for the FPÖ and Greens.”

From the foundation of the Second Republic until today, the center-left SPÖ and center-right ÖVP enjoyed an unbroken duopoly on power, where they could count on at least 80 percent of the vote in national elections—if not 90 percent. They divided up government ministries along ideological lines in a system of Proporz, which begat a friendship economy and culture of patronage in government appointments. This cozy arrangement began to break down in the late 1980s, with the rise of the FPÖ under the charismatic leadership of Jörg Haider, culminating in the 1999 legislative election when the FPÖ won 26.9 percent of the vote, reducing the SPÖ-ÖVP share to around 60 percent and entering into coalition with the ÖVP. In 2013, the SPÖ and ÖVP won only 51 percent of the vote.

Journalist Karl Pfeifer believes that the immediate cause of the SPÖ and ÖVP’s underperformance in the presidential election was the unpopularity of the government of Werner Faymann, one that “could not make the [economic] reforms that were needed” due to pressure from special interests aligned with the two parties. Faymann, now the former chancellor, was particularly disliked. “We had a Socialist chancellor who was a nincompoop. He thought that in politics, if you don’t do anything, then you won’t make a mistake—and that’s always wrong.” His speeches, while perfectly fine, were all chatter and no content, Pfeifer said.

Austrian politics was further destabilized by the government’s response to the refugee crisis. Austria was not just a transit state; in 2015, the country had the second-highest asylum application rate per capita in the European Union. Initially, Faymann sided with Angela Merkel and her open-door policy. “It was a very human thing to do,” Pfeifer told me, “but it was very unpopular in Austria.” Earlier this year, the government sharply changed course toward restricting asylum applications and encouraging the construction of border fences, but it was too late to stop the rise of the FPÖ and Faymann’s downfall.

The two main parties also made clear mistakes during the election campaign. At a gathering of social democratic academics, intellectuals, and artists hosted a few days before the final vote, deputy editor at the Austrian daily Salzburger Nachrichten Andreas Koller told me that the SPÖ simply nominated the wrong candidate when they chose party stalwart Rudolf Hundstorfer. More than that, editor of News magazine Eva Weissenberger added, while Alexander Van der Bellen began his campaign back in the summer of 2015, the SPÖ didn’t get going until January. “The right wing is strong because the others are weak,” Pfeifer concluded.


A new chancellor and government offer hope to the SPÖ of some sort of recovery before the next legislative elections. Christian Kern—former head of the ÖBB, the national railway monopoly—used his first days in office last week to promise the Austrian people a “New Deal,” offering a vision of technocratic over ideological government, Josef Melchior, Assistant Professor at the University of Vienna’s Department of Political Science, explained to me. A poll published in Österreich showed that 55 percent of Austrians had a good first impression of Kern and that he would win a direct election for the chancellorship over Strache.

Still, there is cause for concern. For one, Kern is polling ahead of his party, and were an election held tomorrow, the same poll showed the FPÖ would win. On top of that, Kern is symbolic of the closed, nepotistic, and party-oriented system that young voters in particular have turned against. Kern became ingratiated into the SPÖ in the early 1990s, serving as the spokesperson for the chair of the party’s parliamentary group. From there, he moved to the Verbund, Austria’s largest electricity supplier, before becoming the boss of the ÖBB in 2010. His career progression is a clear demonstration of the level of control Austria’s two main political parties still have over Austrian economic and political life.

Van der Bellen’s victory has prevented the FPÖ from doing any immediate damage, though the president is more of a ceremonial figure, whose function is to act as head of state and appoint the chancellor. But we know from the Israeli model that the president is able to use his position to give an impression of the country overseas and influence public debate at home, as Rubi Rivlin has in condemning violence and emphasizing tolerance and understanding between Jews and Arabs.

Van der Bellen’s election, while very much welcome, cannot mask the instability in Austria’s political system. Hofer’s excellent result in the first round establishes a basis for a potential victory for the FPÖ in the next legislative elections and the formation of a coalition government to which the far right is a partner. Due to be held by October 2018, it is likely that the national vote will be brought forward to sometime in 2017. “The future will be defined by unpredictability and high electoral volatility,” Pelinka said. “It cannot return to the old system were 90 percent of people voted for two parties.” And the fact remains that the FPÖ has a core of supporters and followers who are anti-Semitic. Any changes that have happened in the party, David Braunstein said, “don’t make us feel comfortable. They wouldn’t be our friends in the future and we don’t want to see them get into power. We want to distance ourselves from them as far as we can.”


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Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.