Austria votes: the centre cannot hold

People power: Europe’s most prominent populist parties, together with their share of the vote.

As the last votes were counted yesterday it became clear that Austria had nearly elected Europe’s first far-right head of state. Throughout the continent, political extremism is on the rise…

‘In Austria, European governments see a mirror of their own future. Social tensions are rising.’

A journalist penned these words in 2000. But they could have been written this weekend, when the country held its most polarised election since the second world war.

Small, wealthy Austria has long been seen as one of Europe’s most stable democracies. For decades two centrist parties largely shared power. But in the latest presidential election they both fell in the first round, leaving two maverick candidates to fight it out in the deciding vote.

One was Alexander Van der Bellen, a left-wing pro-EU environmentalist. The other was Norbert Hofer, a gun-toting far-right populist. Hofer was narrowly defeated, but his popularity gave governments across Europe a fright. For it was fuelled by issues that recur throughout the continent: anger at the establishment, anti-EU sentiment and fear of immigration.

Hofer is not unique. Marine Le Pen, a charismatic nationalist, is expected to do well in France’s presidential elections next year. In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik party is amassing votes with its fervent anti-migration rhetoric. Then there is Greece’s Golden Dawn, a fascist party with Nazi overtones, whose popularity is surging.

Nor is this populism confined to the right wing. The Scottish National Party has successfully combined nationalism with a social-democratic platform. And last year, Syriza triumphed in Greece’s general election on a radical left-wing ticket.

Since the war, Europe has favoured political systems that breed consensus and stability. By and large, it has been governed by centrist parties and coalitions. That order is collapsing.

The reasons are diverse, although economic strife and the influx of migrants are common themes. What is clear is that extremism is on the rise, from Athens to Amsterdam. Some are drawing parallels with the conditions that led to the war in the first place. Should we be afraid?

Things fall apart

Yes, say the pessimists. Europe’s problems produced these populists, who are in turn worsening the problems. Their xenophobic language, for example, is hindering attempts to resettle migrants, exacerbating the crisis. We are in a vicious cycle. Hofer lost this election by a fraction of a percent; the next one will go the way of the fear-mongers.

Hang on, reply the optimists. Some of these populists may be distasteful, but they are nothing like the fascists of the 1930s. First, they are more moderate. Second, they are working within democratic systems – and mostly losing, as Hofer did. The nastiest parties, such as Golden Dawn, remain on the fringes. The centre may be caving in, but don’t assume that war will fill the vacuum.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be a politician?
  2. Is the electoral system in your country fair?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are the leader of a political party. Come up with a name, motto and logo that would get people’s attention.
  2. Research the conditions that led to the second world war (in Europe). Write down three similarities with today’s situation, and three differences. Pair up and compare your work.

Some People Say...

“There is no passion so contagious as that of fear.”

Michel de Montaigne

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about an election in Austria?
The result won’t affect you directly. In fact, it won’t even have a big impact on Austrians – the presidency is a ceremonial role. Rather, it was seen as a gauge of public opinion. Some also believe that Hofer’s relative success will boost the standing of far-right parties elsewhere. So it is relevant across Europe.
What about the UK?
Last year’s general election saw huge gains for UKIP on the right and the Green Party on the left. In Scotland the SNP has swept away the opposition. This shows how many people are fed up with the status quo, represented by Labour and the Tories. That said, these ‘populist’ parties are more moderate than most of their counterparts in Europe. An aversion to extremes has long been a feature of British politics.

Word Watch

A journalist
Peter Schwarz. See the BBC News article in Become An Expert.
Wealthy
Ranked 19 for world GDP per head in 2015.
Norbert Hofer
Credited with softening the far right image he welcomes those migrants who ‘respect’ Austria but is accused of adopting symbols linked to the Nazis, such as the blue cornflower.
Immigration
As the first western European country that many migrants reach, Austria has taken centre stage in the crisis. Last year 90,000 people – equal to 1% of the population – claimed asylum in the country.
Jobbik
Hungary’s third-biggest party has made anti-Semitic remarks, advocated tackling ‘Gypsy crime’, and supported the government’s razor wire fence along the Serbian border (built to keep migrants out).
Political systems
Most countries employ proportional representation, in which parties’ seats roughly correspond to their share of the vote. This system usually produces coalitions of centrist parties. The UK, with its first-past-the-post system, is an exception — where the UK Independence Party (UKIP), with a significant minority of votes, won no seats in 2015.

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