How A Conservative Rural Country Defeated A Far-Right Presidential Candidate

This article originally appeared on Public Seminar and has been republished here with their kind permission. David Kretz is a German-born Austrian and a BA 2016 alumnus. 

Heldenplatz, Vienna, Austria (Credit: Shawn Harquail | Flickr)
Heldenplatz, Vienna, Austria (Credit: Shawn Harquail | Flickr)

December 4, 2016, was a fateful day for Europe, and the world. The Italians held a referendum about constitutional amendments and their No vote brought down the government. Though any longer-term effects remain unknown, the financial and political chain reaction that some said had the potential to unravel the European Union did not manifest.

On the same day, Austrians also voted in the final round of their presidential election. There, center-left candidate Alexander Van der Bellen (Green Party) defeated far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (Austrian Freedom Party, FPÖ) 53.8% to 46.2%. Austria is a small country, but the outcome of this election has international significance for at least two reasons.

First, the Austrian election stood to entrench the narrative of the global rise of the populist right that seemed to solidify in the wake of Brexit and US President-elect Donald J. Trump. A Hofer victory might have further chipped away at the scarce but much needed resource of hope. It would have boded very ill for the ongoing struggles in France and Germany against Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the Alternative für Deutschland, respectively. Both countries will hold their own important elections in 2017.

Second, the significance of Van der Bellen’s victory is not just psychological or symbolic. Austria — a conservative country with an established record of spawning far-right forces — has dealt a blow to its branch of the international right and in so doing provides some difficult, hard-won, and practical lessons. To appreciate what this case study has to offer, we need to look at the two election campaigns. First, however, we need to understand a few things about postwar Austrian politics. Here I reflect on both elements and conclude with a short outlook.

Most political power in Austria lies with the parliament. The government is comprised of the party or parties that constitute a majority. The president, de facto, has a mostly symbolic function, although (and this will become important), in theory, the constitution endows the office with several important powers. The president can dissolve and appoint governments, could (with some skilled maneuvering) dissolve the parliament, and is commander-in-chief of the army.

Presidential elections in Austria have two rounds. In the first round, all major parties propose candidates. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the first round then advance to the second and final round. In the second round, the candidate with the most votes wins.

In this election, the second round occurred in May, and Van der Bellen won by the slimmest of margins: a difference of 30,000 votes in a country of 8 million with more than 6 million registered voters, approximately 72% of which voted in May. Refusing to accept this defeat, the FPÖ contested the result before Austria’s highest court. Their successful petition forced another second round, which was repeated on December 4.

A few technical irregularities occurred during the election: though counting was not supposed to start until Monday morning, some absentee ballots were counted on Sunday to save time, and perhaps more significant — savor the chutzpah — observers from the FPÖ were not present at certain polling stations. Even though the statistical probability that these irregularities could have affected the final outcome was on the order of magnitude of 1/1,000,000,000, the Austrian Supreme Court insisted that as a matter of principle any possible influence, no matter how small, demanded a repeat of the voting round that might have been affected. The precedent for this decision was a ruling from 1927, when Austria in its current form did not exist.

Even before this Supreme Court ruling, the first round of the 2016 election had already presented a major upset in Austrian politics. Since World War II, Austria has been run by either the center-left “red” Social Democrat Party (SPÖ) or the center-right “black” Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and often by a coalition of both. Politics as well as society are neatly split along these red and black party lines: Austria has two motor clubs and two military secret services — for each, one red and one black — and either a red or a black director in every high school.

Although this might suggest a deep schism in society, the two parties for the most part coexist rather amicably. For many, these parties have become nearly indistinguishable. In general, the country has not faired too poorly as a result. Nevertheless, the prospect of yet another coalition between the two parties was widely met with eye-rolling boredom.

The reasons for this establishment fatigue are likely varied and complex, yet the candidates of the SPÖ and the ÖVP each received just above 10% of the votes in the first round. Neither advanced to the second round. The defeat was so stunning that the SPÖ chancellor immediately resigned from all offices. (His party still maintained its government coalition with the ÖVP.) Irmgard Griss, a former Supreme Court justice who ran as an independent but with the support of the small (neo)liberal party of the New Austria (NEOS), came in third. Van der Bellen and Hofer advanced to the final round with Hofer clearly ahead.

The Austrian presidential election was about the political parties as much as it was about the candidates. Alexander Van der Bellen has been a member of the Green Party almost since its founding in the late 1980s. Initially mostly an environmental party, the Green Party expanded its concerns to include inequality, feminism, anti-fascism, and the fight against corruption. Much like their German equivalent, the Green Party has matured beyond its more radical beginnings to become a party of the educated bourgeois middle class.

A mild-mannered professor of economics, Van der Bellen grew up in a small village in the Tyrolean Alps, where his family settled after emigrating from Estonia and twice fleeing Stalinism. His economic views are not radical, and he is generally regarded as centrist. Despite his ties to the party, Van der Bellen officially ran as an independent because no Green Party candidate could currently win a national election in Austria.

Norbert Hofer rose in the FPÖ after Heinz-Christian “HC” Strache took over the party from the infamous Jörg Haider in 2005 and moved it further to the right. The FPÖ is anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-Islam, and nationalist. It also contends economic solidarity on the side of workers, despite its consistent track record of kleptocracy and corruption wherever its power rose to power. While regularly disowning members who publicly sympathize with Nazism, the FPÖ keeps good contacts with the French Front National, German Alternative für Deutschland, Dutch Party for Freedom, and Italian Lega Nord. Its leaders met with Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, recent appointee for Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, when they celebrated Trump’s victory in the United States, and in early December, they signed a five-year cooperation agreement with Putin’s party United Russia.

Hofer is the young, charismatic face of the FPÖ: he studied aeronautics and, after a paragliding accident, now walks with a cane. An excellent rhetorician, Hofer has set a much softer tone than had Strache. Since 2013, he has been an honorary member of a völkisch nationalist student association, but unlike Strache or other team members and close associates, Hofer has no personal background in the neo-Nazi scene.

So, how did Van der Bellen win? Statistics show he led strongly among women, white-collar workers, and young people. The rural-urban divide, however, was the tipping point. Whereas Hofer won almost all the rural areas in the annulled initial second round, Van der Bellen improved his performance by between 2% and 7% in almost every county and carried a lot of rural areas in the final second round.

Van der Bellen’s campaign made a very conscious and strong effort to boost his performance among rural voters. He highlighted his roots in the alpine Kauner Valley and spent from May to December restlessly touring the Austrian countryside, visiting village after village to get in touch with the local population. At the same time, historically red Vienna, where almost one-quarter of the Austrian population lives, remained an important bastion against the FPÖ. Strache’s long-held ambition to become Vienna’s mayor was thwarted when he clearly lost last year’s mayoral election, and Van der Bellen won the city with 66% of the vote, leading in all 23 districts.

Results by state of initial (annulled) second round from the 2016 Austrian presidential election. (Credit: Furfur | Courtesy of the author)
Results by state of initial (annulled) second round from the 2016 Austrian presidential election. (Credit: Furfur | Courtesy of the author)
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