Austria Reveals the Weakness of Europe's Political Center

  • Left-wing economics professor beats nationalist in tight race
  • Austria’s vote reflects EU’s economic ills, anti-migrant mood

Cliffhanger Election: Austrian Far Right Defeated in Vote

It was like Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump in the heart of Europe, and the Bern won by a nose.

Left-wing economics professor Alexander Van der Bellen was elected Austria’s largely ceremonial president, holding off an anti-immigration nationalist who campaigned on a Trump-style “Austria First” platform.

But the nail-biter margin -- 31,026 votes out of almost 4.5 million cast -- signified polarization and gridlock, more of a defeat for the crisis-plagued European establishment than a victory of an alternative political program.

The tight vote “indicates not so much the strength of the extremes, but the weakness of the center,” said Timo Lochocki, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “You win elections if you polarize and personalize and have a story to tell.”

Austria was fertile ground for the revolt because it has been governed by a cozy twosome of center-left and center-right parties for most of the post-World War II period.

With Austria’s mainstream parties blurring together and divvying up posts and patronage, the opposition was banished to the fringes. That ostracism ended in the first round on April 24 when candidates from the two traditional parties were eliminated.

Good Times Over

“It’s a Europe-wide trend: the economic good times are over, and the search is on for new policies,” said Peter Hajek, a public-opinion analyst in Vienna. “And that’s where there’s a divergence of views.”

For some, the triumph of Van der Bellen, 72, over the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer showed the right can be stopped. Austria will get a Green party-backed president to go along with a Social Democratic chancellor. For the Freedom Party, the near-miss was just a stepping stone to taking over the chancellorship, the real seat of power, in the next elections in 2018.

Austria rehearsed a right-wing rise once before, when the Freedom Party made it into the governing coalition in 2000 and then fizzled. Hofer, 45, would have become the first western European head of state in the modern era from the far right, a label he disputes.

Ingredients There

Still, the electoral close call demonstrated that, in countries north of the Alps, the anti-immigrant variant of populism strikes a chord with voters even in an era of relative prosperity.

Austria has the third-lowest unemployment rate in the 19-nation euro zone, at 5.8 percent in March. A 4.2 percent rate in Germany, the lowest, hasn’t prevented the rise of a fledgling anti-euro, anti-immigration party there.

“Populist parties do not only flourish during recessions or in economically difficult times,” said Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-Diba AG in Frankfurt. “The ingredients and underlying political trends of the Austrian presidential elections are likely to stay in the euro zone for a while.”

The Freedom Party’s platform is marked by blood-and-soil politics with an emphasis on (heterosexual) marriage, national identity and Christianity. It shares a focus on crime-fighting and skepticism of the European Union with other nationalist parties.

EU Core

Austria’s balloting brought the era of voter wrath from places like Hungary, Poland, Greece and Spain to the EU’s core. Economic grievances mingle with hostility to the outside world and alienation from the EU’s coordinating bodies in Brussels.

So far, law-and-order, anti-immigration parties of the right have done better at the polling stations and at turning their policies into reality. In eastern Europe, the migrant crisis has solidified Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s control of the state and brought the nationalist Law & Justice party to power in Poland.

Rightist parties are exploiting “fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of the other,” said Miguel Otero Iglesias, a senior analyst at the Madrid-based Elcano Royal Institute. “The solution will be seen as more barriers, more inwardness, defending against the scary world out there.”

Europe’s highest-profile left-wing leader, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, came into office in 2015 promising an end of austerity, only to embrace it to stay in the euro. Tsipras’s latest climbdown came Sunday when he rammed through more deficit cuts to qualify for another dollop of financial aid.

Brexit Test

Austria’s tremors looked set to kindle nationalist sentiment in neighboring Germany and sent a warning signal to France where the 2017 election for president -- anything but ceremonial there -- will be dominated by protest politics with an anti-foreigner hue.

It will be hard for France’s leading right-winger, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, to replicate the Austrian result. Her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, squeaked into the final round of the 2002 presidential election, only to be crushed by an alliance of mainstream voters.

While French voters have drifted to both fringes since then, polls indicate that Marine Le Pen would be defeated handily in a runoff.

The influx of mostly Muslim refugees from the Middle East contributed to the Austrian upheaval and to a referendum in the Netherlands in April against the ratification of an EU economic pact with Ukraine.

The next test is in Britain, which votes June 23 on whether to leave the 28-nation EU. Animosity toward foreigners drives the most impassioned backers of an exit; more globally minded “Brexit” campaigners point to the potential economic advantages of ditching the EU.

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