Norbert Hofer, the Austrian Trump.

Photographer: HARALD SCHNEIDER/AFP/Getty Images

Austria Shows Moderates Must Learn to Fight Back

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

The highly likely election of Norbert Hofer, a far-right politician, as president of Austria this coming Sunday has given rise to intense soul-searching in Austria and beyond. The credibility of centrist parties is clearly waning in Europe, just as centrist politicians have problems finding traction in the U.S., and that is especially worrisome in the German-speaking world: When Hofer uses the word "Volksgemeinschaft" in the program of Austria's Freedom Party, it's the exact same word the Nazis used to justify terror against anyone they thought undermining the German "people's  community."

As the new Austrian chancellor, Social Democrat Christian Kern, put it in his first speech after being confirmed in the job on Wednesday:

If we continue to enact this drama, the drama of power obsession and forgetfulness of the future, then we only have a few months until the final impact. A few months until the people's trust and support are fully used up.

Kern, more of a businessman than a political operator, says this about a gray, uncharismatic bureaucracy that has been running Austria for generations in the guise of an effective two-party system, a bureaucracy that has buried the nation's agenda in endless committees, political jockeying and meaningless rhetoric. This should sound familiar to Americans.

In the U.S., though, the chances of the only outsider left in the presidential race, Donald Trump, aren't great. In Austria, when Kern talks about "a few months to impact," he means a specific scenario.

The latest polls put Hofer's support ahead of the vote at 53 percent, with just 47 percent backing his opponent, the Green party's Alexander van der Bellen. Hofer's probable victory is not the biggest problem for the centrists, though: It would be largely symbolic because of the president's ceremonial role. Hofer's dominance is evidence of the Freedom Party's popularity. The ruling coalition of the Social Democrats and the center-right People's Party doesn't have majority support today -- together, they would command only 43 percent of the vote if a parliamentary election were held now. The Freedom Party has 34 percent support. 

Keeping the biggest party in the land out of government would still be possible if the establishment parties invited a third partner -- the Greens, whose candidate they've been backing for president. It would, however, be rather undemocratic, and the new coalition would probably keep losing support. Neither of the centrist political forces wants to make a deal with the Freedom Party, either, especially as a junior partner. Besides the ignominy, having the far-right in government would potentially mean ostracism for Austria on the European Union level. Hofer's pan-Germanist background alone, and his admiration for Nazi-inspired aesthetics -- his favorite painter is one Manfred "Odin" Wiesinger (some of his paintings can be seen here) -- won't endear the potential president to other European leaders.

So what can the centrists do if they lack the charisma and the clearly defined views of their far-right opponents? That's a question even the German social democrats and center-right Christian democrats may be asking themselves next year. Now, their "grand coalition" barely has 50 percent support -- what if it drops further, and the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Alternative for Germany (AfD) party keeps gaining? 

The questions arises quite naturally, not least because Germany's and Austria's political spectrums use the same color scheme. The center-left party is "red," the center-right one "black," the far right "blue," and the greens, of course, "green." Pan-Germanism may be out of fashion in both countries, but the analogies are too obvious to pass up.

As German-Austrian columnist Fritz Goergen put it, "Neither a forced coalition with the Greens if the Red and the Black cannot achieve a majority (in Vienna as in Berlin), nor a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party (or later the Christian democrats and the AfD) can change the political system." These uneasy alliances may lead to the same kind of deadlock and permanent political crisis that Americans hate so much in their own countries.

When I watched the U.S. presidential primaries earlier this year, I argued that the U.S. might be better off, and its democracy would be more representative, with a European-style multi-party system. The Austrian and German versions of multi-party democracy, indeed, give a clear expression to a more diverse spectrum of political views than the U.S. system does. Yet if the strongest parties in these democracies start to collapse due to their inefficiency and colorlessness, and the fringe gets too strong, Europeans start worrying.

Goergen proposes a radical solution: Abolish party politics altogether because they no longer reflect the political will of the people, as the German Basic Law tells them to do. After all, didn't Vaclav Havel, that great democrat, warn that "anything that acquires the 'momentum of power,' establishes its own 'traditions' and requires a plethora of abstract, external regulations should be avoided"? 

Havel's ideal of democracy was elections without parties, in which people representing "ad hoc communities of interest" would run against each other. Later in life, though, the Czech dissident and politician modified his view, saying he was against the "dictatorship of partisanship," not against parties as such. A working and non-corrupt party-free democracy would require a more active civil society than any country in the world has today. Voters need the convenient party labels to make up their minds.

That Goergen even makes the suggestion, however, is indicative of the desperation that the breakdown of traditional elites causes in Europe. Just like in the U.S., the status-quo establishment is shaken and looking for ways out. It probably won't find them in electoral reforms, though: Traditional parties need to rediscover charisma, strong convictions and the skills that win elections, not just backroom battles. Until they do that, and until the moderate causes are sold to voters with as much passion as the extreme ones, battles will be lost, and government will be shaky. Ineffective coalitions will be the order of the day.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net