A Putsch With a Pretty Face

Austria’s likely next president is a handsome, soft-spoken former engineer. He’s also a far-right, racist, xenophobe.

An election campaign poster of presidential candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPOE) is seen in Vienna, Austria on April 19, 2016.
Some 6,3 million Austrians are eligible to vote in presidential elections to take place on April 24, 2016. Candidates from Austria's two main parties look set for defeat in the elections, with polls suggesting they are lagging behind the three frontrunners, including a far-right contender. / AFP / JOE KLAMAR        (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
An election campaign poster of presidential candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPOE) is seen in Vienna, Austria on April 19, 2016. Some 6,3 million Austrians are eligible to vote in presidential elections to take place on April 24, 2016. Candidates from Austria's two main parties look set for defeat in the elections, with polls suggesting they are lagging behind the three frontrunners, including a far-right contender. / AFP / JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

With Austria’s presidential election on May 22, Europe’s rightward march is coming full circle — back to the birthplace, three decades ago, of the “New Right” movement now sweeping the continent. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) is no longer an outlier, but just one of dozens of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic parties between Finland and Greece that are upending Europe’s liberal consensus.

Ever more of those parties are winning positions of high office. But if the Freedom Party prevails this weekend, it would make Austria the first-ever postwar Western European country to elect a far rightist as president. It also opens the way for the Freedom Party to head the next national government when time comes for parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for 2018. Austria then would join the likes of Poland and Hungary as authoritarian, illiberal European Union member states bent on undermining the EU.

Austria’s Freedom Party dates back to the early postwar years when a group that included many former Nazis founded a pro-German, extreme-right party that paid lip service to liberalism. Its leadership claimed that Austria was really part of a Greater Germany, and should be so again as it had from 1938 to 1945 in Hitler’s Third Reich.

In the 1980s, the Freedom Party shucked the friendly allusions to Nazism and crusty, old-school bearing and instead adopted a younger, significantly more modern look and tactful language. Its poster boy was the smiling, sun-burnished Jörg Haider, the party’s undisputed, now deceased leader. The Freedom Party went on to place second in Austria’s 1999 national elections, which enabled it to join in a conservative-far right coalition government led by the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).

This marked a watershed moment in the ascent of Europe’s New Right. Even before Haider took over the party in 1986, ultra-conservative European thinkers called for a New Right to jettison the trappings of the old right, such as the postwar Freedom Party. The New Right, they argued, should lose the Nazi trappings, overt racism, and visions of an undemocratic assault on power. Rather, Europe’s right should wage a culture war against the liberal establishment in order to retake the ground it lost in the postwar decades and seek to forge a “Europe of nations” out of the centralized, ostensibly nation-obliterating EU. Haider, who was killed in a car crash in 2008, fit this bill, even though he too occasionally made complimentary remarks about Nazi Austria’s wartime policies.

As for today’s Freedom Party, its 45-year-old presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer is currently running a classic New Right campaign, the success of which has shocked even party loyalists. The polite, good-looking scientist — he’s a professional aviation engineer, not a career politico — conveys the Freedom Party’s anti-immigrant message without the beer-hall ugliness of the old right or that of less-seasoned like-minded parties elsewhere in Europe. He stands behind vague slogans such as “Austria to Your Feet” and “Austria First,” which sound harmless but convey the message that Austrians should do only what’s best for them, not unfortunates from far-away lands. Austria, he says, should maintain and tighten the restrictive immigration regime of the current Social Democratic-Conservative government. But he says explicitly that Muslims are swamping Austria and that Islam cannot be at home in Austria, sentiments most Austrians agree with.

The Freedom Party’s original spell in government from 2000 to 2005 initially prompted fierce condemnation from abroad and bilateral sanctions on behalf of EU members. (As for the EU, it proved powerless to either prevent or punish the new Austrian government, as it broke none of the community’s rules or laws.) The sanctions backfired badly, consolidating support for the Freedom Party in Austria rather than stigmatizing it. The penalties were dropped after seven months, and the Freedom Party served five years in office, largely steering clear of offensive behavior and controversial policies.

Though it has experienced ups and downs, the Freedom Party has stuck to the New Right game plan, its success measured in the breaking of liberal taboos that has led to its ever greater popular acceptance. In the presidential primary vote on April 24 it took an astounding 35 percent of the vote, an all-time high.

Today, rightists across Europe regularly participate in or even lead national cabinets without any serious international criticism, much less attempts at ostracism. If Hofer becomes Austria’s president, as polls predict though the race is still close, he could be certain that there would be no bilateral or other punishments.

Hofer’s thumping victory over Austria’s two mainstream postwar parties — the conservative People’s Party and the leftist Social Democrats (SPÖ) — in the first round vote on April 24 has already upended Austrian politics. Since 1945, the two parties have run Austria, every postwar government having been led by one or the other, or a coalition between the two. As across Europe, in Austria the political spectrum is fragmenting to the benefit of smaller parties, ushering in a new and uncertain era for these countries. In Austria there will be no retuning to the two-party hegemony of the past.

In contrast to Hofer’s capture of a third of the vote, more than polls forecast, the two establishment parties received just 11 percent apiece, sorrowful all-time lows. Observers say the mainstream parties have never looked more out of touch and void of ideas than they do today, a significant factor in the Freedom Party’s climb. As a consequence of the debacle, Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, unexpectedly resigned his post and the leadership of the Social Democrats last week. In addition to the Freedom Party, two other parties beat out the centrists, one of them a Green-left candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen (with 21 percent), who will compete in the runoff against Hofer for the presidency.

Young people, the lower middle class, and less-educated men, many of them traditional Social democratic voters, seem to connect with the concerned, congenial Hofer. They are not the wealthy or the poor, but working-class families worried about losing what they have. “People aren’t abashed to say they’re voting for Hofer,” says Ingrid Steiner-Gashi, an editor at the Vienna daily Kurier, contrasting this attitude with the past. “His gentle tone enables him to attract support from outside of the usual Freedom Party base.”

Behind all the smiles, the No. 1 issue is refugees — and how to keep them at bay. The Freedom Party, resolutely anti-immigration for decades, is exploiting the coalition government’s midstream flip-flop on refugee policy. Under Faymann, Vienna first stood by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, backing her decision to welcome refugees being refused entry in Hungary and elsewhere. But as their numbers soared (in 2015, Austria received 90,000 requests for asylum, on a per capita basis the second-highest in Europe) the Austrians retreated, shutting down the border and reducing refugee influx to a crawl. In the end, it looked as if the ruling parties, simultaneously battling poor economic figures and rising unemployment, capitulated to the demands of the Freedom Party. Hofer could thus boast of the Freedom Party as the “guardian of the interests of all Austrians.” Throughout the campaign, he has underscored his party’s intentions to keep borders closed, beef up military patrols along the borders, and reduce social benefits for asylum seekers.

Critics argue that the Freedom Party’s xenophobic, racist beliefs are only thinly veiled. Hofer, for example, has spoken out against Austria’s EU membership, which contradicts the Freedom Party’s program and has made comments sympathetic to Germany’s populist protest movement, Pegida. Far rightists from other countries, such as France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’s Geert Wilders, were among the first to congratulate Hofer on his election victory. In the EU Parliament, the Freedom Party belongs to the bloc called Europe of Nations and Freedom, which encompasses a dog’s breakfast of far-rightists that include Le Pen’s and Wilders’s parties as well as the far-rightist German Alternative for Germany and the United Kingdom’s UKIP, among others.

Hofer’s rival is also an outsider, the longtime leader of the Austrian Green Party, Van der Bellen. A 72-year-old former academic, Van der Bellen is the face of the Austrian Greens, which garnered 10 percent of the vote in the last national elections held in 2014. The humble professor of applied economics, who was coaxed out of retirement to run, advocates reopening borders and returning to Merkel’s side on the refugee crisis.

If all of Austria’s liberal forces were to rally around Van der Bellen, and against the Freedom Party, he’d easily defeat Hofer. But neither the People’s Party nor the Social Democrats have, as parties, done so. “Austria is a conservative country,” Steiner-Gashi says. “Most people can’t imagine voting for a Green,” she says, noting that Van der Bellen is running on the ticket of a broad, left-wing platform not for the Greens as such.

“If Van der Bellen wants to win, he has to go on the offensive and attack Hofer now, which is something he’s hesitant to do,” says Robert Misik, a Vienna-based author. “It’s not his style.”

This leaves the door open for Hofer to become the first far-right president in an EU country. While most Austrian presidents have acted largely as figureheads, the constitution prescribes the office significant powers. The directly elected president, who sits in the storied Hofburg Imperial Palace, the Habsburg dynasty’s former residence in central Vienna, has authority to dissolve Parliament. He may also appoint cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, and military officers. “If he wanted to, the president can put a lot of pressure on the political parties,”  Misik says.

It’s not hard to imagine that the Freedom Party will take the presidency and then win again in Austria’s 2018 general elections. The Freedom Party could then form a government. If national elections were tomorrow, the Freedom Party would win hands down, though it would need a coalition partner, presumably the conservative People’s Party.

This would position Austria for the kind of authoritarian makeover happening in Hungary and Poland, where right-wing politicos have captured the state and shunted liberal values. While this has transpired in Budapest and Warsaw, the EU has done plenty of squawking, but none of it has caused either Hungary’s Viktor Orban or the PiS party in Poland to budge an inch from their strong-arm policies. The Austrians, for their part, already know that the EU won’t stand in the way. And so the country that gave the New Right its start 30 years ago will soon allow the movement to enjoy an unprecedented triumph — and allow post-Cold War Europe to suffer an unprecedented defeat.

Photo credit: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, May 18, 2016: The Freedom Party of Austria served for a total of five years in office, as part of a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party. A previous version of this article mistakenly said that the party had served a five-year term. 

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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