Tu Felix Austria

17 mai 2017

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Not even a week after the inauguration of President Trump, a left-liberal president was formally instated in the small central European country of Austria. His election was a mess by any standard. After a first round between six candidates, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreich’, in German, hereinafter FPÖ) and the independent ex-green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen emerged victorious.[1] The run-off was held in May 2016, but its results were nullified by the Constitutional Court because of irregularities in the counting of the postal ballots. Then again, faulty postal ballots forced the re-run of the second tour to be delayed from its planned date in October to early December that same year.

In this election, Norbert Hofer had the easier hand. His Freedom Party chose to focus on migration and the 2015-2016 refugee crisis was ideal fodder for his arguments. While the right of the ‘Freedom Party’ is known for its questionable nostalgia[2], Norbert Hofer represented a new, more centrist stream of the FPÖ. His programme changed so far to the centre that he once even condemned an anti-refugee measure proposed by the conservative foreign minister as going too far.[3] Moreover, Norbert Hofer appealed to voters with his brilliant rhetoric and dominance in interviews. His ability to twist past statements drew journalists into desperation and allowed him to escape attacks on his record.

Van der Bellen, on the other hand, appealed mainly to intellectual voters. As someone from the liberal side of the Green party, he is known as a considerate politician with an ecological agenda. His very academic interview style matched his civilian profession as professor of economics. While Van der Bellen could count on a considerable fan base comprised of students and intellectuals that valued his integrity, he found it hard to find a majoritarian stance. In some early interviews, he openly admitted to not representing the majority on certain issues.[4] Consequently, despite the general fear of the FPÖ, it took him time to build a broader consensus around his campaign.

Still, Van der Bellen won the December election by a margin of 7%, significantly clearer than the few thousand votes that had separated the candidates before. It is worth highlighting four factors that help explain his victory:

Firstly, the election showed that enthusiasm and civic involvement can sway an election. Unlike what happened in the first version of the runoff, the younger generation became active and convinced their parents and grandparents to go out and vote. Declarations in favour of Van der Bellen became numerous on social media. While Facebook posts did not change anything, the reciprocal motivation led to action – i.e. donations and active conversations that convinced people to vote. Their arguments seem to have worked. Apparently, as many as 100,000 people made the extreme switch from the far-right Hofer to Van der Bellen[5]

Secondly, the election was one of the first after the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Most Austrians viewed Brexit as a disaster and Van der Bellen, who had always pursued a pro-European course, advocated a “No to Öxit” position on his advertisements. Using statements from the FPÖ as recent as January 2016[6], he implied that the party would pursue a policy of taking the country out of the European Union. By contrast, the Trump campaign showed decisively less impact on Austrian politics. While Van der Bellen stated his worry and Hofer his joy, Trump vanished from the campaign topics in the weeks leading up to the elections.

Thirdly, Van der Bellen’s team fully engaged in identity politics. In stark contrast to certain streams of the left placing the responsibility for the rise of populism on the increase of inequality in the neoliberal system, Van der Bellen focused on patriotism, albeit in a very different form than the FPÖ. The success of his campaign based on a “positive” and “inclusive” patriotism might indicate that, at least in Austria, identity politics trumped other factors. Indeed, in a country where most FPÖ voters are relatively well-off, the purely economic argument can quickly be disregarded as too materialistic. In the final stages of the campaign, the candidates almost exclusively challenged each other on the question ‘What does it mean to be Austrian?’ Redistribution and economic factors did not seem to interest voters sufficiently to stay present in the debate.

Fourthly, a certain wariness accompanied the election campaign. While Austria’s presidential post is vastly ceremonial, the president has the constitutional power to dissolve the government. Moreover, as the final person to sign laws, he has the authority to ensure their constitutionality. The examples of not-so-far-away Poland and Hungary show that this institutional balance gains importance when one party seeks to cement its power. Additionally, Austria’s historical background led many to meet the FPÖ’s ascent with mistrust. It is unlikely that Mr. Hofer, had he been elected, would have dissolved the government or signed unconstitutional laws mandated by the FPÖ for power consolidation. Yet, given the current state of the world, would it have been wise to take the risk? The majority of the Austrian population did not think so.

In conclusion, three lessons for liberals can be distilled from the factors about Van der Bellen’s victory highlighted above. Firstly, patriotism is not a monopoly of the right. You can love your country and still argue for progressive policies. Alexander Van der Bellen showed that this might be very appealing to many voters. Secondly, excitement about a candidate can make an important change. If you do not want the far right to win, it is sensible to declare yourself in favour of a candidate and create momentum. Simply complaining about the competition will unlikely be as effective. Lastly, Brexit and Trump might be disappointing results for liberals. However, they also made people aware that political choices directly affect their future – this in turn can make them more wary about whom they elect. In 2017, the cards are freshly shuffled. If you are concerned about the future of your country, it is the right time to get active.




[1] The electoral run-off between two non-centrist candidates was a novelty for Austria but explicable by the fact that the centrist candidates (1) all seemed relatively similar and (2) there were so many of them that the electorate was split up. These factors reliably prevented a centrist majority. By contrast, both Norbert Hofer and Alexander van der Bellen had reliable voter bases on the fringes that would not easily turn their eyes onto any other candidate.

[2] See, for example, the story of John Gudenus who was convicted of negating the Holocaust in 2006. Source: “Überblick: Urteile gegen Politiker.” News.ORF.at. October 13, 2014. Accessed May 07, 2017. http://orf.at/stories/2249375/2249415/.

[3] DerStandard.at. “Hofer hält Flüchtlingsideen von Kurz für “überzogen”.” DerStandard.at. December 07, 2016. Accessed May 07, 2017. http://derstandard.at/2000044097692/Hofer-Fluechtlingsideen-von-Kurz-gehen-zu-weit.

[4] Cf. Van der Bellen’s remark in the TV duel between the two candidates, according to which he was well aware of not representing the majority opinion on certain issues.
Source: “Hofburg-Wahl: Erste direkte Konfrontation zeigte zwei starke Kämpfer.” www.kleinezeitung.at. June 09, 2016. Accessed May 07, 2017. http://www.kleinezeitung.at/politik/bundespraesident/4984334/HofburgWahl_Erste-direkte-Konfrontation-zeigte-zwei-starke-Kaempfer.

[5] “Bundespräsidentschaftswahl 2016.” News.ORF.at. Accessed May 07, 2017. http://orf.at/wahlergebnisse/bp16/#migration.

[6] Oliver Pink und Wolfgang Böhm, “Norbert Hofer sagt den Öxit ab,” Die Presse, July 8, 2016, http://diepresse.com/home/innenpolitik/5046595/Norbert-Hofer-sagt-den-Oexit-ab; see also Parlamentskorrespondenz Nr. 42 of 27.01.2016


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Growing up in Austria, Stefan studied law and international business administration in Vienna before doing his Master's in European Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. During his studies, he developed a strong interest in argumentation and political speech, nurtured by his active involvement in competitive university debating.