How A Conservative Rural Country Defeated A Far-Right Presidential Candidate
The 2016 Austrian Presidential Election
December 4, 2016, was a fateful day for Europe, and the world. The Italians held a referendum about constitutional amendments and their No vote brought down the government. Though any longer-term effects remain unknown, the financial and political chain reaction that some said had the potential to unravel the European Union did not manifest.
On the same day, Austrians also voted in the final round of their presidential election. There, center-left candidate Alexander Van der Bellen (Green Party) defeated far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (Austrian Freedom Party, FPÖ) 53.8% to 46.2%. Austria is a small country, but the outcome of this election has international significance for at least two reasons.
First, the Austrian election stood to entrench the narrative of the global rise of the populist right that seemed to solidify in the wake of Brexit and US President-elect Donald J. Trump. A Hofer victory might have further chipped away at the scarce but much needed resource of hope. It would have boded very ill for the ongoing struggles in France and Germany against Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the Alternative für Deutschland, respectively. Both countries will hold their own important elections in 2017.
Second, the significance of Van der Bellen’s victory is not just psychological or symbolic. Austria — a conservative country with an established record of spawning far-right forces — has dealt a blow to its branch of the international right and in so doing provides some difficult, hard-won, and practical lessons. To appreciate what this case study has to offer, we need to look at the two election campaigns. First, however, we need to understand a few things about postwar Austrian politics. Here I reflect on both elements and conclude with a short outlook.
Most political power in Austria lies with the parliament. The government is comprised of the party or parties that constitute a majority. The president, de facto, has a mostly symbolic function, although (and this will become important), in theory, the constitution endows the office with several important powers. The president can dissolve and appoint governments, could (with some skilled maneuvering) dissolve the parliament, and is commander-in-chief of the army.
Presidential elections in Austria have two rounds. In the first round, all major parties propose candidates. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the first round then advance to the second and final round. In the second round, the candidate with the most votes wins.
In this election, the second round occurred in May, and Van der Bellen won by the slimmest of margins: a difference of 30,000 votes in a country of 8 million with more than 6 million registered voters, approximately 72% of which voted in May. Refusing to accept this defeat, the FPÖ contested the result before Austria’s highest court. Their successful petition forced another second round, which was repeated on December 4.
A few technical irregularities occurred during the election: though counting was not supposed to start until Monday morning, some absentee ballots were counted on Sunday to save time, and perhaps more significant — savor the chutzpah — observers from the FPÖ were not present at certain polling stations. Even though the statistical probability that these irregularities could have affected the final outcome was on the order of magnitude of 1/1,000,000,000, the Austrian Supreme Court insisted that as a matter of principle any possible influence, no matter how small, demanded a repeat of the voting round that might have been affected. The precedent for this decision was a ruling from 1927, when Austria in its current form did not exist.
Even before this Supreme Court ruling, the first round of the 2016 election had already presented a major upset in Austrian politics. Since World War II, Austria has been run by either the center-left “red” Social Democrat Party (SPÖ) or the center-right “black” Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and often by a coalition of both. Politics as well as society are neatly split along these red and black party lines: Austria has two motor clubs and two military secret services — for each, one red and one black — and either a red or a black director in every high school.
Although this might suggest a deep schism in society, the two parties for the most part coexist rather amicably. For many, these parties have become nearly indistinguishable. In general, the country has not faired too poorly as a result. Nevertheless, the prospect of yet another coalition between the two parties was widely met with eye-rolling boredom.
The reasons for this establishment fatigue are likely varied and complex, yet the candidates of the SPÖ and the ÖVP each received just above 10% of the votes in the first round. Neither advanced to the second round. The defeat was so stunning that the SPÖ chancellor immediately resigned from all offices. (His party still maintained its government coalition with the ÖVP.) Irmgard Griss, a former Supreme Court justice who ran as an independent but with the support of the small (neo)liberal party of the New Austria (NEOS), came in third. Van der Bellen and Hofer advanced to the final round with Hofer clearly ahead.
The Austrian presidential election was about the political parties as much as it was about the candidates. Alexander Van der Bellen has been a member of the Green Party almost since its founding in the late 1980s. Initially mostly an environmental party, the Green Party expanded its concerns to include inequality, feminism, anti-fascism, and the fight against corruption. Much like their German equivalent, the Green Party has matured beyond its more radical beginnings to become a party of the educated bourgeois middle class.
A mild-mannered professor of economics, Van der Bellen grew up in a small village in the Tyrolean Alps, where his family settled after emigrating from Estonia and twice fleeing Stalinism. His economic views are not radical, and he is generally regarded as centrist. Despite his ties to the party, Van der Bellen officially ran as an independent because no Green Party candidate could currently win a national election in Austria.
Norbert Hofer rose in the FPÖ after Heinz-Christian “HC” Strache took over the party from the infamous Jörg Haider in 2005 and moved it further to the right. The FPÖ is anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-Islam, and nationalist. It also contends economic solidarity on the side of workers, despite its consistent track record of kleptocracy and corruption wherever its power rose to power. While regularly disowning members who publicly sympathize with Nazism, the FPÖ keeps good contacts with the French Front National, German Alternative für Deutschland, Dutch Party for Freedom, and Italian Lega Nord. Its leaders met with Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, recent appointee for Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, when they celebrated Trump’s victory in the United States, and in early December, they signed a five-year cooperation agreement with Putin’s party United Russia.
Hofer is the young, charismatic face of the FPÖ: he studied aeronautics and, after a paragliding accident, now walks with a cane. An excellent rhetorician, Hofer has set a much softer tone than had Strache. Since 2013, he has been an honorary member of a völkisch nationalist student association, but unlike Strache or other team members and close associates, Hofer has no personal background in the neo-Nazi scene.
So, how did Van der Bellen win? Statistics show he led strongly among women, white-collar workers, and young people. The rural-urban divide, however, was the tipping point. Whereas Hofer won almost all the rural areas in the annulled initial second round, Van der Bellen improved his performance by between 2% and 7% in almost every county and carried a lot of rural areas in the final second round.
Van der Bellen’s campaign made a very conscious and strong effort to boost his performance among rural voters. He highlighted his roots in the alpine Kauner Valley and spent from May to December restlessly touring the Austrian countryside, visiting village after village to get in touch with the local population. At the same time, historically red Vienna, where almost one-quarter of the Austrian population lives, remained an important bastion against the FPÖ. Strache’s long-held ambition to become Vienna’s mayor was thwarted when he clearly lost last year’s mayoral election, and Van der Bellen won the city with 66% of the vote, leading in all 23 districts.
The effort to win the rural vote is related to the Green Party’s campaign decision to make the concept of homeland (Heimat) an ideological battleground and retake it from the right. Ads often featured long landscape shots, evoking associations of Heimat with beautiful nature and its protection, which has traditionally been a core concern of the Green Party. For their last major spot, the campaign got permission to use the hugely popular song “I Am from Austria,” which is regarded as the country’s unofficial anthem. Written at a time when Austria was the subject of international critique after the Waldheim affair, it combines patriotism with a certain irony and a critical attitude. Finally, the campaign linked patriotism to Austria’s image in the world and its role in the EU. Against the EU-skeptical concept of patriotism as nationalism that the FPÖ favored, the Green Party argued that caring about the country being a responsible, engaged, and reliable partner on the international stage is a form of patriotism.
A similar, though less visible, realignment took place regarding security and stability issues. The FPÖ portrays EU bureaucrats, migrants, and refugees as threats to national sovereignty and security, while portraying itself as a saving power that could bring back an allegedly lost security. The Van der Bellen campaign effectively countered this narrative in a twofold way. On the one hand, it established itself as the voice of the center — of prudence, reason, and stability — in a world recently shocked by Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. On the other hand, against the FPÖ’s apocalyptic scare politics, it positioned itself as the voice of courageous yet realist optimism and openness toward the world.
Hofer had made threatening allusions early on in the campaign that, against traditional custom, he would make much more liberal use of the powers that the constitution invests in the president, for example, to disband the government in the event of another refugee crisis. In response, the Van der Bellen campaign produced a video of a Holocaust survivor warning how violent words had led to violent deeds in the 1930s. She spoke of this election likely being her last, of the Austrian civil war of 1934 where she saw corpses for the first time as a child, and of being frightened by the menacing suggestion of FPÖ chief Strache that the country was again steering toward civil war. The video went viral, receiving more than 3.6 million views. The fears the FPÖ had stoked now turned against them.
Besides the ideological offensive to retake key concepts such as Heimat and security from the right, organizational factors played an important role. A very broad grassroots movement of volunteers fueled Van der Bellen’s campaign. The major red and black parties did not expressly side with either candidate but almost all key members of the SPÖ privately made clear they favored Van der Bellen. Support from the ÖVP was more fractured, but many ÖVP mayors campaigned for Van der Bellen while party head Reinhold Mitterlehner also supported him and reigned in party members who favored Hofer. Finally, NEOS also put its support behind the independent Green Party candidate.
And, yet, that a far-right candidate could still receive 47% of the vote against such a coalition indicates a sign of desperation. Nevertheless, this needs to be viewed within historical context: only three times since World War II has an Austrian president been elected with more than 60% of the vote, and in each of those elections, the major parties had basically agreed on a common candidate beforehand. Six times, the race was tighter.
Whether the lessons of the 2016 Austrian presidential election will be applicable to other races in Europe and beyond remains to be seen. In the light of Van der Bellen’s victory and with the 2018 national elections approaching, it is instructive to look at the latest developments within the major parties because they face challenges similar to those of parties throughout Europe. As some have recently suggested, the SPÖ and ÖVP could switch their positions regarding the FPÖ: whereas the center-right ÖVP has traditionally been open to cooperating with the FPÖ, the center-left SPÖ has always been more strongly opposed.
For now, the FPÖ has the support of the working class in Austria. Demonizing the FPÖ to win back these voters has not worked for the SPÖ. Especially at the state level, where (apart from Vienna) the SPÖ is under a lot of pressure, many of its leaders have called for openness toward the FPÖ because a coalition might be their only shot at participating in the government. Indeed, in one of Austria’s nine regions, the SPÖ already has a coalition with the FPÖ. Chancellor Christian Kern’s position finds him yielding to state-level party heads that the FPÖ is not to be demonized as a far-right party, while also working to defeat it on a policy level by doing good work and making concrete proposals to win back the workers’ vote.
As head of the ÖVP, Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner is internally consolidating his party against the FPÖ and sharpening its profile by taking a stance against the far right. Even more interesting here, however, is Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. The rising star and “crown prince” of the party, Kurz has the party youth firmly behind him. Having occupied the prestigious office of Foreign Minister since the age of 27, without even having finished his law degree, he will most likely be the ÖVP’s candidate in 2018. Kurz has lauded Australia’s approach to refugees (before Human Rights Watch exposed its underlying brutality). He also took a strong stance against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on democracy in Turkey, but mostly to please the nationalist anti-Islam, anti-immigration voters. With Kurz as party head, a coalition between the ÖVP and the FPÖ seems much more likely.
Mitterlehner, by contrast, could use his remaining two years to build a new center-right liberal coalition combining NEOS with the ÖVP. If Chancellor Kern and Vice Chancellor Mitterlehner manage their double-pronged strategy to win back the votes of both the workers and the middle class, they could deal the FPÖ a significant blow. Kern and Kurz are the two figures to watch in the middle and long run.
The Green Party recently debated whether it should endorse some form of left-wing populism. The future version of the party, however, will likely be closer to the Greens in Germany than to Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. In the meantime, the FPÖ must think carefully about how it can finally win in Vienna. Despite speculation that Hofer would try to assume leadership of the party, he immediately and explicitly declared public loyalty to Strache. Hofer also said he wants to run for president again in six years. This will not be the last we hear of him.