Rejection of a Far-Right President

On Sunday 22 May, Austria elected its President in the second round. The results of the two candidates were so close that the election was decided when the voting cards were counted on Monday. The neoliberal, green, bourgeois and democratic candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, won the second round of the elections with 50.3% against Freedom Party (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer.

The FPÖ, a right-wing populist and authoritarian German nationalist party of former leader Jörg Haider, was founded in the 1950s as a political party where former Nationals Socialists congregated who never broke with their tradition. The election turnout was 73%.
The fact that a right-wing extremist candidate was prevented from becoming President at the last minute is cause for relief and joy, but by no means reason for complacency. Now, the FPÖ’s motto is ‘If not President, then Chancellor’. This election has brought about a qualitative shift in the political landscape of the Second Republic of Austria and is of European relevance. The political system as we know it is history: for the first time, no candidate from the Social Democrats (SPÖ) or conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) reached the second round of the elections.  
There will probably be early parliamentary elections in Austria before the scheduled date in autumn 2018 and polls are predicting that the FPÖ might become the strongest party. The change of leadership of the Social Democrats and Kern, the new chancellor who is succeeding Faymann (who stepped down on 9 May 2016), have led to a temporary surge in sympathy. However, these changes have not brought about the much-needed change in politics which could prevent them from losing the electorate’s support.

A President like the British Queen

The office of the President has always been politically irrelevant in Austria. The President’s role has, traditionally, resembled that of the British Queen, consisting merely of undertaking representational duties, such as the swearing-in of the government and the routine signing of laws. The Communist party (KPÖ) is demanding the abolition of this office.
However, the Austrian President can exercise certain powers; he or she may dismiss the government and nominate a new chancellor and new ministries, or may dissolve Parliament. Also, theoretically, he is commander in chief of Austria’s armed forces.

A European Trend

The rise of the extreme right in Austria is part of a European trend. Fuelled by the Grand Coalition’s authoritarian solutions to the crisis and their adoption of right-wing topics, acceptance and popularity of right-wing populists and the extreme right is on the rise in nearly all European countries. [1]
In 2000, when Jörg Haider’s FPÖ became Austria’s second-strongest party with 26% of the votes and then entered the government alongside the People’s Party, there was international outcry and the EU even imposed sanctions against Austria. There was no outcry following Orbán’s ascension to power – the whole political landscape had already shifted towards the right.

The problem: no viable left-wing alternative

The struggle against the right can only be won if the left provides credible, social and democratic alternatives. In the countries of central Europe with leading far right (Hungary, Poland, also in Slovakia the far right SNS is part of the governing coalition), as well as in Austria, there are no parties to the left of the Social Democrats and Greens being represented in Parliament.
In Austria, this electoral alternative have had been prevented by widespread anti-Communism and the ‘Social Partnership’ system – a class compromise corporative system. Whereas soon after the war, the right had already been integrated back into the system.

No ‘Cordon Sanitaire’ against the FPÖ candidate

After the first round of elections, no broad ‘Cordon Sanitaire’ has been built; there has been no republican mobilisation against the FPÖ candidate, Hofer, who is a member of a German National fraternity which regards Austria to be part of the German nation. Both SPÖ and ÖVP, whose candidates failed to enter the second round of the elections, did not endorse Van der Bellen. It seems that parts of both parties did not want to turn against their potential future coalition partner. Many prominent intellectuals and artists, however, called the public to vote for Van der Bellen, while certain (former) conservative politicians and some prominent Social Democrats declared that they would vote for Van der Bellen. Furthermore, the Austrian left including KPÖ supported the green candidate.

A Departure on the left

Now, the challenge for the Austrian left will be to use the remaining time to join forces and build alliances in order to achieve a change in society. Those who stand for a just and progressive political orientation should be actively involved in this process. The point of departure for a campaign to this end will be marked by a broad conference organised by the Austrian left on 4 June in Vienna.

[1]  See also Walter Baier: Reactionary Rebellion and The Resistible Rise of the Far Right in Europe