Austria’s presidential election has been overshadowed by Matteo Renzi’s dramatic defeat in the Italian referendum, but Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory is significant nonetheless. It confirms there are now two Europes, north and south. Southern members like Italy are becoming increasingly hostile towards the EU, while northern members like Austria will do (almost) anything to keep the EU on track. So why did Austria buck the American trend, and chose a Euro-friendly head of state?
Churchill said Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He might have been talking about Austria today. The Austrian capital, ‘Red’ Vienna, has always been socially liberal and politically leftist. The countryside has always been politically conservative and socially reactionary. Accordingly this election was a stark choice between a Green Eurofederalist and a far-right Eurosceptic, and the result was a straight split between town and country. Van der Bellen won the cities, while his right wing rival, Norbert Hofer won the countryside. Like Britain after Brexit, Austria is a divided nation. The big difference is that, unlike Britain, in Austria it was ever thus.
As you may recall, this vote was a re-run of the original presidential election in May, which Van der Bellen won by fewer than 31,000 votes. This margin was so small that when voting irregularities emerged, the result was annulled. This re-run was expected to be just as close, if not even closer, but Van der Bellen has defied expectations, increasing his share from 50.3 percent to 53.3 percent. So what’s changed? In two words: Trump and Brexit.
Rather than emboldening Austrian Eurosceptics, these shock results in Britain and America have rattled them, and the reason for this abrupt volte face is Austria’s troubled past. A century ago, Vienna was the capital of a vast empire that stretched from Prague to Krakow, from Trieste to Belgrade. Modern Austria is merely the rump of a nation which once ruled much of Poland and Romania, the Czech and Slovak Republics and the Balkans. Defeated in two world wars and complicit in the atrocities of the Third Reich, after 1945 it was a neutral no-man’s-land, a Cold War cul-de-sac surrounded on three side by the Warsaw Pact. Now Vienna is a crossroads again, but a generation ago it was hard up against the Iron Curtain.
In a country that’s always looked East as much as West, Trump’s vague attitude to foreign affairs is especially disconcerting. Nobody can predict Trump’s policy towards Europe, and in this climate of uncertainty, Austria has lost its appetite for political experiment – hence Norbert Hofer’s waning popularity since May. Whatever their misgivings about the European Union, immigration and globalisation, this no longer feels like the right time for Austrians to strike out on their own. In Austria, as in Germany, the supranational nature of the EU has been a panacea, not a threat. For Austrians, the EU, for all its faults, remains the devil they know best.
Hofer’s party, the Austrian Freedom Party, may seem extreme by British standards, but by British standards its stance on Europe is positively wishy-washy. Like Alternative fur Deutschland, Germany’s Eurosceptic party, their EU policy is reform, not departure. A member of the Freedom Party, Anton Mahdalik, even criticised Nigel Farage for suggesting Hofer would hold a referendum on Austria leaving the EU. ‘That didn’t help us, it hindered us,’ said Mahdalik. They may be playing a long game, but for now, at least, Oexit is verboten, even for the most Europhobic party in Oesterreich.
Some of Hofer’s opponents have labelled him a Neo Nazi. This crude slur is a clumsy simplification of a complex problem, an attempt to shut down a discussion that badly needs to be opened up. Nationalism may be an ugly anathema to the liberal mindset, but it is not the same as Nazism – not at all. Even in defeat, Hofer gained nearly 47 percent of the popular vote, and nearly 50 percent in May. If British Remainers deserve a voice, then so do his supporters. Like Britain’s Remainers, they’re not going to go away. Hofer’s concession to Van der Bellen was remarkably gracious. Now the Austrian establishment needs to reach out to his supporters, to try and understand their concerns.
The Austrian presidency, unlike the American presidency, is mainly ceremonial. Likewise, this election result is largely symbolic. Austria’s Freedom Party is still ahead in the polls, and the next parliamentary elections in 2018 (or possibly before) will test the strength of Austria’s ‘grand coalition’ between the Social Democrats and the Austrian People’s Party – two centrist parties in broad support of the European status quo. The Freedom Party has been in government before (in coalition with the Austrian People’s Party). If the Social Democrats and the Austrian People’s Party don’t acquire a better understanding of what motivates nearly half the population of a civilised country to vote for a far-right candidate then, despite this setback, by 2018 the Freedom Party may well be in government again.