Even those of you who haven’t been following the ongoing turmoil of the presidential election in Austria will not be surprised to learn the details. In short, a right-wing populist party candidate and a socialist left-wing candidate are this year both enjoying greater support than ever before. Their political views are as different as chalk and cheese – or, to give the German equivalent, day and night – but they are united in that they are minority party, fringe candidates. The same story is true all over the Western world as political parties and groups that even a few years ago would have been sneered at in the press as marginalised extremists are suddenly finding unprecedented levels of support. The difference in Austria is that one of these extremist candidates, Norbert Hofer – the presidential candidate for the anti-immigration, Eurosceptic Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) – actually has a strong chance of winning. The events that have led up to this require some careful consideration.
To give some brief context: the presidential elections were in fact already held. On 22 May, the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen beat Hofer by a margin of less than 1 per cent. The FPÖ subsequently challenged the result, and as such the election is now being re-run. Further confusion was added when the elections were forced to be postponed for a second time due to ‘faulty glue’ on the postal voting ballots. The date is now finally set for 4 December of this year, but many pollsters have predicted a shift in public mood in the last few months that will see Hofer take power, perhaps by a reasonable majority. He would be the first far-right leader of an EU country and he has said he will push for legislation to bring about a referendum on what is already being called ‘Öxit.’
The election is unusual in other ways. Austrian presidential elections have several rounds, meaning that the last round –which was held initially on 22 May – features only two candidates between whom the people must choose. Neither of Austria’s traditional centrist parties made it to the final round. Instead, two relatively small and extreme parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum garnered enough support to become the only options left for the Austrian people. Van der Bellen is technically running as an independent candidate, but has financial backing from the Green Party of which he was a member for most of his political career. Pro-gay marriage, pro-immigration and a self-proclaimed ‘child of refugees,’ he would, for traditionalist Austria, be an extremely unorthodox choice as president. Hofer, however, believes in Austrian nationalism, talks proudly about the gun he carries with him and has said that ‘Islam has no place in Austria.’
The Austrian people are being asked to choose between two radical candidates and there is no middle option. Western European politics have in recent years become based around the idea of moderation. The mantra goes that no candidate or party can win unless they appeal to as many demographics as possible. Having a strong opinion about anything could lose you votes and support. A ‘political answer’ or ‘political opinion’ has even come to mean a point of view that is evasive and vague. And yet here we are with candidates and political parties as far removed as Donald Trump, UKIP, Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany and the SNP in Scotland all either having been created in recent years or else having found new levels of support. The ostensible reasons for this support can be read about ad infinitum in every newspaper – the migrant crisis, economic instability, divergent opinions on climate change. But there have always been divisive issues in this world that have allowed spaces for extremist parties to take control. So what’s changed? Why is it now that they are actually getting this support? What is it that have meant the Austrian people must choose between night and day?
I contend that it is the growth of grassroots movements that have seen backing for extremist parties grow. Hofer has been very careful to distance himself and his party from PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes or the ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’), but the nationalistic movement founded in Germany has a big base in Austria and have publicly supported Hofer for President. People are flocking to this movement because PEGIDA stands apart from politics: they do not claim to be a political party or to affiliate themselves officially with a political movement. Instead, they stand for ordinary working people with simple, clear messages that people can get on board with. They have implicitly supported the AfD in Germany in much the same way: not giving explicit approval, but aligning themselves with their political ideal and militarising many disillusioned people, who might otherwise not pay attention to politics, to go out and vote for them.
Of course, this is not a privilege of right-wing extremist groups. The UK’s Green Party markets themselves as being outside of politics and an alternative to the normal political rhetoric of the twenty-first century. Bernie Sanders was a political outsider who gained support for criticising not only the Republican Party but also US politics in general. There is a sense that those who know what they are doing in politics and have been doing it a long time should no longer be trusted. People want something fresh and different, and by turning to these grassroots movements and relatable leaders they feel as if they have somehow beaten the political elite. As Michael Gove put it a few weeks before Britain voted to leave the European Union, ‘people have had enough of experts.’
The situation in Austria is noteworthy because it is the first time that a Western country hasn’t had a moderate, centrist candidate or party as an option in a national election. Whatever happens on 4 December, a member of the EU will have a new leader with very extreme views who has support largely from people who are dissatisfied with the political norms of our time: either day or night. And there seems no reason at all to suppose, in the years to come, that Austria will be unique.
First published in the Foreign Affairs Review 8/11/2016