Austria prepares for historic swerve to the right
If pistol-packing presidential candidate Norbert Hofer triumphs in the run-off of the presidential election on Sunday (22 May) he will become the first democratically elected far-right head of state in Western Europe since the Second World War.
Despite the shudders such a spectre prompts for many in Austria and throughout the European Union, Hofer, a member of the populist Freedom Party (FPO) and a fierce critic of Austria’s refugee policy, is the odds-on favourite heading into the showdown against avuncular economics professor and former Green Party chairman Alexander Van der Bellen.
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In the first round on 24 April, Hofer garnered 35 percent, Van der Bellen 21.
The elderly, traditional candidates for the two ruling mainstream political parties, the centre-left Social-Democratic Party (SPO) and centre-right People’s Party (OVP), which had dominated Austrian politics since the 1950s, barely managed between them to scrape together two-thirds of Hofer’s tally.
Their poor performance starkly illustrated how rapidly and deeply Austria’s political landscape has changed.
The mood had already begun to sour in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis amid an initially creeping belief that the two old-school political parties were responsible for economic stagnation underscored by a rising unemployment rate, financial malaise, and an erosion of Austria’s traditionally high quality of life.
SPO and OVP only just managed to pass the joint simple majority mark in 2013 national elections.
Near-constant bickering between the two ruling coalition partners fuelled the irritation. The far-right Freedom Party began edging up in the polls.
Then came the refugees last year, in their hundreds of thousands, along the Balkan route, through Austria.
Most of them continued on to Germany, helped by the Austrian Federal Railways – run, until a couple of weeks ago, by Austria’s brand-new chancellor Christian Kern, who was appointed leader on 18 May after Werner Faymann abruptly resigned amid the political turmoil unleashed by round one of the presidential vote.
But 90,000 people opted to apply for asylum in Austria, whose population is just 8.5 million.
The Freedom Party pounced, warning in apocalyptic terms of chaos, the disintegration of the Austrian state and the drowning of its cultural and religious identity under a huge wave of foreign arrivals.
Values, law and order
A swing to the political right by the ruling Social Democrats and an uneasy EU-Turkey deal to stem the flow of migrants failed to undo the damage caused by the storm.
Freedom Party support soared, whipped up by the carefully-crafted populist rhetoric of its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache and compounded by a tabloid press seething with stories about exploding crime linked to foreigners.
If a parliamentary election were held tomorrow, the Freedom Party would in all likelihood win. Polls have it in pole position nationally, at well over 30 percent.
Into the maelstrom jumped presidential candidate Hofer, until now a deputy president of the Austrian parliament, but whose cherubic demeanour and measured rhetoric belie his unshakeable far-right field beliefs, as expressed in his anti-immigration emphasis on Austrian values, law and order and EU scepticism.
“You will be surprised at all the things that will be possible" when I am president, Hofer said in a recent TV debate.
One of the things he could do, under constitutional powers never used by previous presidents, is make good on his threat to dismiss the government if he believes it is not acting in Austria’s interest.
That would spark early elections that would almost certainly be won by the Freedom Party, which could then partner with one of the battered mainstream parties to rule the country.
From there, critics warn, it would be but a small step towards the kind of democratic erosion apparent in Hungary and Poland.
Even if the current coalition completes its mandate, Hofer would still be president after national elections in 2018, and if, as expected, the Freedom Party were to win then too, the party’s near-total hold on power - though delayed - would still materialise.
While a Hofer victory is not certain, alarm bells are already ringing at home and abroad
Hans Rauscher, a columnist at the Der Standard newspaper, has described the danger of a “presidential putsch” and the “Orbanisation” of Austria by reference to Hungary's right-wing leader Viktor Orban.
Vienna’s powerful social-democratic mayor Michael Haeupl accused Hofer of “bluntly marching in the direction of presidential dictatorship”.
“There exists the possibility that the country could fundamentally and dramatically change," Josef Kalina, a former SPO MP who still provides the party with PR advice, told EUobserver. "That is the danger when you elect as president someone from a very pronounced right-wing populist protest party.”
“That would be comparable to a takeover by Marine Le Pen and the Front National as president in France … [or] Geert Wilders as the head of a government with a parliamentary majority in the Netherlands,” Kalina said of the consequences of a far-right president-chancellor combination.
No Hungary or Poland?
Freedom Party spokesperson Martin Glier said that any suggestion Hofer would be an authoritarian president was “nonsense”.
“He will be a president for Austrians, not just of Austria, who will defend the interests of Austrians vis a vis a government that has not done so for a long time,” he told EUobserver.
But he added that this would be in the form of a “control function that until now has not been known like that”. As for Hofer’s approach to the EU? It should re-adopt the “values of a Charles de Gaulle”, and move away from any vision of a “Brussels central state”.
Asked if a future Freedom Party chancellor emerging from national elections might, together with a far-right president, threaten Austrian democracy Glier said: “Not at all.” Would it create another Hungary or Poland? “Not at all”.
But that does not that mean Austrians and the EU have nothing to worry about if Hofer becomes president, Glier said.