Austrian Presidential Elections: Explaining the rise of the far right
A cynical commentator might argue that when Karl Marx spoke about historical events always happening twice, once as a tragedy, the second time as a farce, he thought about Austria in regard to the farce.
A cynical commentator might argue that when Karl Marx spoke about historical events always happening twice, once as a tragedy, the second time as a farce,  he thought about Austria in regard to the farce. Indeed, the eleven month long election campaign was not free of farce. From the candidacy of a rather shrill and eccentric real estate millionaire, to the annulment of the second round of the election, the postponement of its repetition due to disintegrating election envelopes, and the minister of interior’s suggestion not to hold the (really) final round of the election on 4 December, since that would be too close to the popular St. Nicholas celebrations (which are usually accompanied by festive drinking).
The fourth attempt to elect a president eventually took place on 4 December, with voters choosing Alexander Van der Bellen, the former head of the liberal Green Party, over Norbert Hofer, the third Speaker of Parliament and candidate of the far-right Freedom Party. Including ballots by mail, Van der Bellen won 53.79 percent (2 472 892 votes), with Norbert Hofer getting 46.21 percent (2 124 661 votes). Large parts of the liberal-leaning media in Europe, as well as European politicians celebrated this result as a “signal for European values and unity” (Jean-Claude Juncker), saying that “Austria has stopped the neonationalist march in Europe” (Thomas Oppermann) and taking it as “a sign that not all countries are turning their backs on rationality and progress” (The Guardian).
The fact that over two Million Austrians cast their ballots for a candidate who is not only one of the main ideologues of his party, but during the election campaign explicitly stood for an authoritarian, racist reorganisation of the society, cannot be brushed off with a sigh of relief that he didn’t make it in the end
I want to argue that this is in fact a major misinterpretation of what happened in Austria and a dangerously negligent blurring of the developments in the country and beyond. The fact that over two Million Austrians cast their ballots for a candidate who is not only one of the main ideologues of his party, but during the election campaign explicitly stood for an authoritarian, racist reorganisation of the society, cannot be brushed off with a sigh of relief that he didn’t make it in the end. Van der Bellen’s primary asset was that he was not Norbert Hofer. 42 percent of his voters stated that their main motivation was to prevent Hofer, while only 34 percent actually voted for him because they wanted him as president. The fear of a far-right presidency in Austria has eventually rallied support from unlikely allies, constructing a broad front against Hofer. As painful as it is to admit, the far-right’s explanation of its narrow defeat that “this was a situation of everyone against one” (Herbert Kickl) is frighteningly correct. Almost everyone in the political and public sphere expressed support for Van der Bellen: the former president, the social democratic chancellor (who even attended fundraisers), the conservative vice chancellor, the liberal “Neos” party, most candidates of the first round of the election, industrialists and businessmen, most prominent cultural figures, NGOs, most of the media, … and still the far right came historically close to winning the highest office in the country.
What explains this phenomenon? One of the major motives for a vote for Hofer was that he was perceived as “understanding the problems of people like me” (55 percent; only 28 said that about Van der Bellen), that he can “initiate important changes in society” (53 percent; 28 for Van der Bellen), and that “he is standing against the current political system” (54 percent; this didn’t even make the top 11 reasons anyone had voted for Van der Bellen). Indeed, a large part of those who voted for the far right expected a worsening of their situation in the future (43 percent), while only 16 percent of Van der Bellen’s voters expected such a decline; this is even more clear-cut in regard to what was expected for the young generation, with 59 vs. 29 percent expecting a decline in their future prospects and living standards.
These primarily social and economic anxieties are not without reason. Austria has experienced a continuously sharp rise in unemployment over the past years, currently having the highest unemployment rate since 1946. In general, real wages have been stagnant for 25 years, while some sectors, especially blue collar workers have income losses of up to 14 percent from 1998 to 2014 (a trend that was continued). It is no coincidence that the candidate to whom many ascribed the possibility of radical change (see above) won in a landslide amongst blue collar workers: 85 percent. This phenomenon is also reflected geographically: while better-off areas saw a massive turnout for the green candidate, poorer, underdeveloped, and often formerly industrial areas were dominated by the far-right.
This social and economic crisis yields the political crisis. The crisis of the Austrian political system has already shown itself in the first round of the election, when the two candidates of the traditionally major parties, Rudolf Hundstorfer (SPÖ, former president of the Trade Union Federation and Minister of Labour) and Andreas Khol (ÖVP, the former president of parliament) pathetically lost with just over eleven percent each, making this the first presidential election in Austrian history in which none of the major parties’ candidates won. In fact, the far right won the first round in a landslide.
In fact it is the lack of left-wing challenges to the established political parties that creates the space for the far right to dominate societal discourse and direct the feelings and experiences of disenfranchisement, of being neglected, and the wish for radical change towards racism and an openness to authoritarian solutions.
However, I reject the notion that the rise of the unemployment and the decline in living conditions for large parts of the society must automatically lead to the rise of racism and a surge in the votes for the far right. In fact it is the lack of left-wing challenges to the established political parties that creates the space for the far right to dominate societal discourse and direct the feelings and experiences of disenfranchisement, of being neglected, and the wish for radical change towards racism and an openness to authoritarian solutions. Additionally, both major parties have largely adopted the policies and rhetoric of the far right in the past years: from the construction of a border fence, to limitations on the number of asylum seekers accepted, culturalist discourses representing foreigners as a ‘threat’, the cutting of social aid for non-native Austrians … both the Social Democracy and the conservative People’s Party are in coalitions with the far right on regional and local levels, thereby not only legitimising its program and presenting them as a respectable political party, but also practically implementing decidedly racist policies. Towards the end of the election campaign even Alexander Van der Bellen found it necessary to bow to the far right’s discourse, endorsing the closure of the border, and – more subtle – refraining from showing any support by non-autochthonous-looking people in his election ads.
On 4 December, Austrians didn’t witness a defeat of the far right, they were only granted a deadline extension; and they’d better use it.
All this doesn’t prevent the far-right from presenting itself as the only alternative to the policies of the government and the other established parties. It only serves in legitimising its discourse. While it had been possible in the fourth attempt to elect a president to prevent the victory of the far right, this only seems to be a postponement of its victory. If the government survives, the next parliamentary elections will take place in 2018 and will most likely see the Freedom Party emerging as the strongest force. As long as no new left-wing political force which takes the grievances of those who experience a sharp decline in living standards and feel disenfranchises, seriously and combines the struggle for social rights with that against racism and xenophobia, the far right will not be stoppable. On 4 December, Austrians didn’t witness a defeat of the far right, they were only granted a deadline extension; and they’d better use it.
 Karl Marx, “Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (1852),“ in Karl Marx Friedrich Engels Werke, Vol. 8 (Berlin: Dietz, 1960), 115.