It is finally December and most of us can agree on one thing: 2016 has been a pretty awful year. However, if you thought that the curse of political populism could finally be put to bed for the winter, think again. This weekend Austria elects its next President, and there is a significant chance they will vote in a right-wing populist as their new Head of State.
The 2016 Austrian Presidential election has been notoriously chaotic. The election first began to look abnormal in April, when the first round of voting was held. Since the end of the Second World War, two centrist parties have governed Austria, frequently together in grand coalitions – not uncommon in the proportional representation voting systems used in Austria and Germany. But 2016 was different. The candidates from both of these ruling parties were eliminated in the first round of voting, leaving two less conventional candidates in the running. Coming out on top was Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ), a far-right group which under his leadership has become even more extreme. Despite Hofer’s exceptional performance, he did not win an outright majority, triggering a second election in May and pitting him against the second biggest vote-holder, Alexander Van der Bellen, an Independent candidate and former Green party leader.
the two candidates could not be more different if they tried.
The second election on 22 May returned an agonisingly narrow win for Van der Bellen: he secured the premiership with just 1 per cent of the vote. Yet Liberals could not breathe a sigh of relief – the Hofer camp disputed the result, citing the use of defective glue in sealing down postal votes. With concerns of vote-tampering, the result was discarded and a rerun of the election was set for 2 October. As Autumn came around, the country returned to their campaigns, only for the election to be postponed again in an almost farcical move, as the envelope glue still was not sticking enough. Yet again the posters came down and the new date was set for 4 December.
If all goes well, this weekend Austrians will be able to finally vote for their new President. Posters have swamped the capital city, and the news channels have been awash with debates and opinion polls. Everyone has an opinion on who should win, and it is hardly surprising; the two candidates could not be more different if they tried.
Van der Bellen could well be described as part of the liberal elite. He is highly motivated by green issues and education, with a long history in academia and politics. Unsurprisingly, he has a big student following, but at 72 he’s hardly fresh political blood. Even his campaign seems to be aware of that; his posters are awkwardly contrived to portray him striding forward, or gazing over an undulating Austrian landscape, as if capturing him in motion will make people forget he was born before a year before the end of the Second World War. His slogans are also lacklustre and almost defeatist. “For the Reputation of Austria” one pleads, as if his main selling point is that at least he is not Hofer. Van der Bellen should by all logic win. His policies are relatively tame, arguing for the better use of Austria’s workforce and more interaction with the electorate, but 2016 has shown a big swing against the establishment. Although he is an independent, he is not exactly a breath of fresh air.
On the other hand, Hofer is the archetypal politician of 2016. Formed in the image of Trump and the leaders of the Brexit campaign, Hofer’s outrageous policies could succeed. His leading point is immigration: he promises to “defend” Austria from the dangers of an overly welcoming immigration policy and protect the homeland against Islamism and violence. He wants to stop the misuse of Austrian social services, which he blames on the influx of immigrants, and pledges to stop decreasing worker’s wages.
The migrant crisis has affected Austria more than many countries: in 2015 Austria received 90,000 asylum applications, with much backlash. This year, Austria’s asylum laws became tougher, and there has even been talk of building a fence across parts of the Italian border. Hofer chimes in with that sentiment, and more so. As a liberal, I cannot help but find his campaign somewhat harrowing. His posters are filled with the Austrian flag, depicting Hofer behind words such as “Power Needs Control” and “For Austria, with Heart and Soul”. With such forceful statements, several of the posters have seen the addition of a small, square moustache spray-painted under his nose.
Despite their obvious differences, the two candidates are both relative outsiders with some commonalities. Hofer and Van der Bellen have pledged not to sign TTIP, acknowledge the need to tackle climate change, and are eager to make closer ties with Europe, albeit with differing methods. Van der Bellen wants to create a pan-European policy to deal with the migrant crisis, share the burden that Germany, Sweden and Austria have shouldered, and distribute it more equally across a united Europe.
Hofer’s European friendliness is more focused towards one European country in particular: Germany. Hofer has faced accusations of being a German nationalist, rewriting his party’s manifesto to commit to the “German people” and “Volksgemeinschaft” (unity of people). While he has reiterated his loyalty to Austria as a separate state, a President who is not entirely against an Austro-German Anschluss is not wildly comforting. His Europhilia ends at the German border, promising that Austria will no longer carry the weight of her neighbours. He follows his German counterparts, Alternative für Deutschland, playing on the irritation many have with bailing out struggling Eurozone countries, promising his people that their finances will no longer be sent abroad to support the single market.
2016 HAS SEEN POPULISM AND THE FAR-RIGHT ENJOY SHOCK VICTORIES ACROSS THE GLOBE.
For most young people, the choice is clear. Van der Bellen, a university professor, talks of unity with Europe and a forward-looking education system. Outside the university politics building, Van der Bellen stickers litter the ground, and I have seen “VdB” badges being exchanged by students. In the war of the posters, the University section of Vienna’s famous ring road is clearly Van der Bellen’s patch. His striding figure has been left untouched outside the daunting main building, immaculately encouraging his young support base. The University is, of course the echo chamber of liberalism that would be expected from the area. Worryingly, the city is not.
Vienna is the capital of Austria, and as with most capital cities, it leans further towards the left. In the first round of voting, the entire map of Austria turned an ominous FPÖ blue, all except a small, eastern pocket of green marking out the capital. Yet Vienna is not overwhelmingly pro-VdB. His posters have been defaced just as Hofer’s have, some smeared with mud or marked with the word “NO”. Austria is a conservative country: there is no Sunday trading, etiquette on the trams and tubes is rigid and at times, the streets of Vienna can make Exeter look diverse. If Van der Bellen fails to get enough support in Vienna, his wider campaign could suffer significantly. The endless re-running of the election may also play in Hofer’s favour, potentially decreasing voter turn-out, particularly of moderate voters likely to choose the status-quo, who have become apathetic by the constant campaigning.
In the end, Austrians may make the same decision as before, ultimately sticking with the more moderate option. They have voiced their discontent loudly enough by letting Hofer get this far, but he is doing worryingly well in the polls. 2016 has seen populism and the far-right enjoy shock victories across the globe. Considering the political mood within Austria and the wider world, a populist win may not be such a shock here after all.