There was a great sense of relief and much jubilation over the electoral victory of Alexander Van der Bellen, the Green candidate who was supported by a voters’ coalition that ranged from the centre to the Communist Party, and who defeated Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing radical political party.
But not everywhere. Six months later, with the election of its new head, the 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, a postmodern hybrid of youthful bravado and a hoary reactionary world view, the ÖVP ended its government coalition with the SPÖ. If the opinion polls are to be believed the coup has succeeded, and the ÖVP will emerge the victor of the 15 October elections.
With this, the course would be set in Austria for a ÖVP-FPÖ coalition with Sebastian Kurz, ‘the acceptable face of right-wing populism’,1 as Chancellor. But this could be the prelude to a far-reaching reconstruction of the eroded party system of the Second Austrian Republic.
The answer to the question how the result of the presidential election could be turned around in such a short time lies in the deformed and manipulated character of Austrian democracy.
It has long been an open secret that an influential sector of the ÖVP has been working towards a coalition with the FPÖ; it was already known that a parliamentary majority for this could be activated at any time. Up to now this has been impeded by the fact that there has been no majority in the population for this coalition, which Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory demonstrated.
The rabble-rousing that has for years been fuelled by the tabloid press against refugees and Islam has left its mark on Austrian society. In the end, the SPÖ not only governed together with the FPÖ in one Austrian federal state but signalled that it also saw a possibility of a coalition with the FPÖ on the national level. Although not such a plausible option it did cause the collapse of the last resistances within the ÖVP to a ‘Black-Blue’ coalition.
And so the country is looking forward excitedly to an election in which only one thing seems certain: with whatever partners, the FPÖ will sit in the next government.
Of all Europe’s right-wing radical, populist parties, the FPÖ is among the nastiest. Due to its racism and anti-Islamism it is at times considered a nationalist party. But this is only true in a very specific sense: It differs from other nationalists in that its nationalism does not refer to its own nation, Austria. The FPÖ is a German-national party in the sense that according to its current party programme it regards those Austrians whose mother-tongue is German to be a part of the German nation.2
It shares this view with the influential subculture of German fraternal societies (Burschenschaften), traditional cultural associations, and new right periodicals, which in turn constitute the sounding boards of right-wing extremist and neo-Nazi agitation in the country. They are close neighbours.
This is not as eccentric as it would appear. The FPÖ is in fact a party traditionally anchored in Austria’s party system.3 Its German nationalism represents a sector of the Austrian elites and, moreover, the growing influence of German capital in the country’s economy and culture.
Both its relation to National Socialism and to German nationalism pits the FPÖ in opposition to the Constitution of the Second Austrian Republic and to Europe’s post-war order, including that of the EU. In the scenario of a further aggravation of the EU’s crisis and increased German great-power ambitions, this can have a very unpleasant European relevance.
The above is what can briefly be said of the FPÖ’s ‘hidden agenda’ and the ‘unspoken common knowledge’ that holds its hard core together and links its surrounding intellectual and cultural milieu.
Its electoral successes, however, must be explained by something else, namely its successful mutation into a right-wing radical party of the new type, which combines an authoritarian view of society, ethnic nationalism, and a populist political style.4 It shares this capacity to moult and yet remain the same with the other right-wing radical parties (among them the Front National, Lega Nord, the PVV, and Vlaams Belang) with which it is federated in a common group in the European Parliament.5
The composition of the FPÖ’s electorate exhibits the picture well-known from studies of similar parties: A significant part of FPÖ voters consist of men, workers with lower-level education (according to their employment status) outside the urban centres. It consists not so much of the declassed strata; rather, it involves people who see themselves as part of the middle strata and feel threatened by downward social mobility and abandoned by the established political parties. And they are right in this, because their social situation has really worsened in the last decade. A declining wage share has led to a rapid increase in social inequality. The unemployment rate rose from 5% to 9% at the height of the financial crisis, with the average pension income expectation sinking by ca. 25%.
But it would be wrong to interpret the growth of the populist right as a ‘class vote’ – however misguided; no valid conclusions on the actual class composition of the electorate can be derived from the published data. The vote shares are not broken down by income levels or by categories such as ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘high-ranking staff’, or ‘owners of assets’. The support the FPÖ gets from the top ten thousand is among the country’s best kept secrets, whose veil is occasionally, and usually accidentally, lifted. For example, the conservative Viennese daily Die Presse went so far as to report in an article last year – with the significant title ‘Hört die Signale’6 – for the growing support of the FPÖ by members of the exclusive Association of Austrian Industrialists.7
The growing populist alienation between the institutions of liberal democracy – which have abandoned people to the cold social indifference of the market – and the population, which has retaliated by turning its back on liberal democracy, is the consequence of the above-mentioned deformation of Austrian Democracy.
The present party system of the Second Austrian Republic’s party system appears to be headed towards an ugly death. In any case, with its putsch-like change of leadership and the adoption of a populist political style the ÖVP seems to have found a short-term solution to its survival. On the other hand, the future of the Austrian Social Democrats, despite all their rich tradition, is now very questionable. If it is actually voted out as a governing party, there will not only be a struggle over its narrowing patronage amongst its clientele but also one over the party’s future orientation, especially its relationship to the FPÖ.
In this precarious situation for Austrian democracy the question arises of possible alternatives. The SPÖ and the Greens have proved incapable of making anything out of Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory. Nor are they in a position to present a credible alternative programme that takes as its starting point the interests of the majority of people living in Austria.
Thus, in Austria too the solution to the political crisis lies beyond Social Democracy, specifically in the construction of a popular, progressive political force that establishes and distinguishes itself in the opposition both to a continuation of prevailing neoliberal policy and to the nationalist, radical right. This is a question that points far beyond the upcoming elections. At any rate, it is encouraging that for these elections an alliance has formed out of the Green Party’s youth organisation (that has been thrown out of the party), diverse left activists, and the KPÖ, and that it is running candidates under the label ‘KPÖ plus’.
1. Hans Rauscher, ‘Haben wir uns in Christian Kern getäuscht?‘, Der Standard, 16 August 2017
2. The precise wording in the FPÖ’s current party programmed is: ‘Sprache, Geschichte und Kultur Österreichs sind deutsch. Die überwiegende Mehrheit der Österreicher ist Teil der deutschen Volks-, Sprach- und Kulturgemeinschaft’ (The language, history, and culture of Austria are German. The overwhelming majority of Austrians are part oft he German ethnic, linguistic, and cultural community), Parteiprogramm der Freiheitlichen Partei (FPÖ). Beschlossen vom Bundesparteitag am 18.6.2011 in Graz
3. Anton Pelinka, ‘Die FPÖ im internationalen Vergleich’, conflict & communication online, 1/1 2002, www.cco.regener-online.de/2002_1/pdf_2002_1/pelinka.pdf.
4. See: Cas Mudde, ‘The Far Right and the European Elections’, Current History Magazine 03/2014.
7. See Die Presse, 2 May 2016, http://diepresse.com/home/wirtschaft/kolumnen/kordiconomy/4978742/%20Hort-die-Signale-der-FPO?%2520_vl_backlink=/home/index.do.