Thursday

19th Sep 2019

Opinion

Austria vote is wake-up call for EU left

  • People like Hofer filling the vacuum where old left used to be (Photo: Hofer's campaign)

In a nail-biting finale, Alexander van der Bellen on Monday (23 May) secured a tiny majority of 50.3 percent to prevent Norbert Hofer becoming the EU’s first far-right head of state.

It was the happy ending to a comeback-of-the-year campaign that Van der Bellen and his team pulled off in the last two weeks.

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  • More like Hofer waiting in the wings (Photo: European Parliament)

Norbert “the pinstriped-Nazi” Hofer, was unable to defend the 14-point lead that he had established in the first round of the election. He was defeated by postal votes that wiped out his tiny lead in the polling stations.

Commentators will, in the days and weeks ahead, pore over what caused the result.

But whether it was ex-chancellor Werner Faymann’s shock resignation after Hofer’s first-round triumph or whether Austrian people choked on their apfelstrudels when they realised what that triumph could lead to isn’t that important.

Van der Bellen’s win merits a collective sigh of relief.

But what’s essential is that the election should be seen as the last wake-up call for EU leaders and, in particular, for the European left.

When I left my apartment in Vienna’s politically green 7th district on Monday, minutes after the BBC had announced Van der Bellen’s victory, I saw people anxiously staring at their phones and then, seconds later, smiling in joy or embracing one another.

Nobody cried from what I saw.

But I am a first-hand witness of just how deeply this vote has politicised and divided Austrian society.

“Whoever wins the election has the duty to unify this country again”, said Hofer on Sunday evening after the polling station results.

It won’t be an easy task, with Austria’s tolerant and open-minded metropolitans on the one side and its apparently xenophobic, rural population on the other.

Commentators and politicians on the left, myself included, have often sneered at far-right voters.

But the time has come to better understand the psychology of the Hofer constituency - a psychology based on fear.

It’s a fear fuelled by globalisation - by broad political, social and technological developments that threaten peoples’ old way of life.

It’s this fear that leads people to embrace politicians who give simple answers to hard questions and who scapegoat others - migrants, the EU - along the way.

One doesn’t have to respect far-right parties that use bluntly racist slogans and that foment the increasing violence that occurs in their milieu. But the underlying fear is real and, what’s more important, it’s justifiable.

Lost political home

The Austrian and European labour market has, in recent years, undergone a drastic change that is most visible and tangible for the working classes.

If you’re a journalist, an academic or a business consultant, it doesn’t really matter that lower-skilled jobs are being outsourced to Asia. It doesn’t really matter that manufacturers are moving toward near-full automisation of their production lines and that more people are competing for low and medium-income work.

But if you’re a farmer, a construction worker or a small, self-employed entrepreneur, these changes mean everything.

This used to be the classic constituency of Europe’s social-democratic parties.

But, as Harvard University scholar Peter A. Hall recently told German magazine Der Spiegel: “Now, the socio-cultural professionals are the natural clientele of the social democrats. And many among them are the children of workers who already achieved social ascension”.

If he is right, it means that those people who are now suffering the most due to the global economic trends have lost their political home.

The European left, not just political parties but also civil society, have abandoned the very people who used to be their raison d’être.

Far-right parties, such as the National Front in France, the AfD in Germany or Hofer’s FPO in Austria address popular fears with simple and aggressive programmes.

But left-wing parties such as Germany’s SPD or Austria’s SPO and PS have nothing new to say on how they will improve the common man’s lot.

Defend the people

While far-right groups such as Pegida in Germany call for radical action against foreign infiltrators and the leftist elite, left-wing movements, such as Nuit debout in France or the Occupy movement, call for nothing but complain, in vague terms, about the social injustice of capitalism.

Austria has the honour of hosting both the OSCE and a UN office. The former was designed to prevent conflict in Europe after the Cold War. The latter was meant to prevent conflict after WWII.

The country staved off, by 0.3 percent, the embarrassment of also hosting a leader who harks back to the darkest hour in Europe’s modern times.

But unless the European left reclaims those people whom it originally promised to defend, Monday’s victory could be the last over a set of authoritarian, xenophobic and anti-European politicians waiting in the wings.

Florian Lang is a post-graduate student at the University of Vienna, specialising in European far-right movements

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Analysis

Tough challenges ahead for Austria's president

Alexander Van der Bellen, who won by just 31,000 ballots, will not have an easy task reconciling a divided country wih a far-righ that remains on the rise.

Brexit raises questions for EU defence integration

Brussels' current vision for cooperation on defence, where third countries can contribute but have no say in decision-making and in the guidance of operations, is unlikely to be attractive to the UK.

Europe's refugee policy is test of its true 'way of life'

As ex-national leaders, we know it's not easy to withstand public pressures and put collective interests ahead of domestic concerns. But without strong institutional leadership, EU values themselves risk ringing hollow, not least to those seeking protection on Europe's shores.

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