Austria’s election result will do little to halt the populist surge in Europe

While Europe might take solace from the presidential election result, it should recognise that Austria’s Eurosceptic drift will not be halted by Van der Bellen.

On Sunday December 4, 74 per cent of Austrians went to the polls to cast their vote in a re-run of the second round of presidential elections. The high turnout – one of the largest in decades in Austrian national elections – was key for the victory of former Green party leader Alexander van der Bellen over his rival Norbert Hofer of the populist Freedom party. While Hofer's electorate stayed more or less constant in numbers, Van der Bellen was able to mobilise more undecided and centrist voters for him this time round.

While the Freedom Party accused an “alliance of fear-mongers, state-sponsored artists, and system-profiteers” for their defeat, they themselves proved to be the biggest obstacle to victory. During the campaign, the tone from Hofer’s camp became increasingly rude, depicting his opponent’s supporters as “Communist hordes” or trying to portray Van der Bellen as a spy because he once submitted an article to the Stockholm based research institute SIPRI. Such shark accusations and fabricated stories have limited appeal, and as the Austrian equivalents to Breitbart news have few followers, they never gained wider traction. Instead they repelled large numbers of centrist voters and made them vote for a rather left wing but decent, rather than right-wing but indecent, candidate.

It is also possible that the UK’s turbulent post-referendum experience gave another boost to Van der Bellen. Hofer and the FPÖ had promised a referendum on Austria's EU membership (despite the fact that calling a referendum is not within the powers of the president), a prospect which has declined in popularity in light of the British example. Although Hofer later tried to distance himself from this pledge, he was unable to undo the damage.

But the election also revealed other trends similar to those across Europe or the Atlantic. Van der Bellen owed his victory by and large to voters of the urban centres and their surrounding districts. He scored much weaker in the countryside. Apart from his home region of Tyrol, Van der Bellen only won significant vote shares in  rural areas in Upper-Austria and Vorarlberg –  both of which are economic powerhouses with well developed service and high-tech manufacturing industries.

There is therefore a “rust-belt” phenomenon similar to that seen elsewhere, in which areas that felt left behind by the political and economic changes of the past decades voted for a nativist, anti-establishment candidate. And there are indications that large segments of the rural population do not agree with the urban elites' libertarian world-view. Still, in electoral terms this divide was much less pronounced than in the US, the UK, or Germany.

But while Europe is relived that at least one election has bucked the populist trend, what does this mean for Austria? Will a president Van der Bellen act as a bulwark against the FPÖ’s rise in parliament? Only to a very limited extent. The office of the president is largely ceremonial, with the few competences of the office counterbalanced by other provisions. For example, the president can dismiss parliament, but only at the request of the government. And while he appoints the government, any government needs parliamentary approval. Former President Thomas Klestil had to accept two consecutive governments he personally disapproved of, because they had a majority in parliament. Van der Bellen might decline one or the other minister, but if the FPÖ enter government in the 2018 general elections, he will have little power to resist them.

Despite Sunday’s result, this seems a likely scenario. FPÖ has led national polls almost continuously since early 2014 and gained a strong boost from the refugee crisis.  Depending on the general election performance of the other parties, even a grand coalition between conservatives (ÖVP) and social-democrats (SPÖ) might not be able to keep FPÖ out of government.

Instead, it now looks likely that an alliance between SPÖ and FPÖ could emerge as a governing coalition in 2018. After Hans-Christian Strache took over as FPÖ chairman in 2005 he shifted the party towards a left-leaning agenda on domestic issues, effectively transforming the party into another socialist party. On taxation, welfare, retirement, state-owned industry and regulation the FPÖ now have much in common with the SPÖ. And on the other side the SPÖ has become increasingly eurosceptic since 2006.

Hence before the election, SPÖ chancellor Christian Kern was said to respect Strache for trying to bring the country forward, while former SPÖ president Heinz Fischer argued that the SPÖ should be open to a coalition with the freedom Party. The calculation of this equation is easy. If the FPÖ is not integrated into a government where it needs to bow to political reality, the party's populist tendencies will only become more extreme. And as the Social Democrats share domestic goals with the FPÖ, it could advance these interests with them and regain support from core party members who have been repelled by the gridlock and inaction of the grand coalition with the conservatives.

On foreign policy, too, there are converging interests between the two parties, which share a distrust of the EU and an ‘understanding’ of Putin’s Russia. The SPÖ has towed the EU line on Russian sanctions for fear of conflict with Berlin, but would likely move towards FPÖ’s position in opposing sanctions if the two joined forces. On the refugee issue there would likely be more friction, with the SPÖ’s Viennese faction decidedly less hostile towards refugees than the FPÖ. But in the countryside the difference is much less pronounced, and even in Vienna the party has expressed its frustrations with Germany’s lack of co-ordination and consultation in its handling of the crisis. It is therefore easy to envisage an SPÖ- FPÖ coalition joining the Eastern bloc in opposition to Germany on this issue.

Could Van der Bellen make a difference in such a situation? Hardly. He can't change or work against a parliamentary majority, and it will rest on the party leaders to negotiate this majority. He might insist on a Social Democrat to be chancellor or foreign minister. But this would only give a friendly face to a Eurosceptic government.

So while Europe might take solace from the presidential election result, it should recognise that Austria’s Eurosceptic drift will not be halted by Van der Bellen. Sunday’s result is a welcome break from the doom and gloom (for pro-Europeans) of recent months, but it will not turn back the populist surge even in Austria, let alone Europe. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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