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Austria: A case study in outmaneuvering the far right


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Writing for the blog of the NY Review of Books, Jan-Werner Müller, a fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, writes about the peculiar political situation in Austria, which has been largely overshadowed lately by the Brexit debacle. Until recently, political power in Austria was for decades held by one of two dominant political parties: the center-left Socialists or the center-right Christian Democrats. But in presidential elections held last May, candidates from these parties barely mustered 10 percent of the vote each. Instead, Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party edged out Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party. However, earlier this month Austria’s Constitutional Court, citing irregularities in the voting process, ordered that the presidential election be repeated in October. Analyzing these dramatic and surprising events, Müller suggests that the situation in Austria offers a case study in how far-right parties in Europe have gained wide support—and how they can be prevented from coming to power. Here’s an excerpt:

Just why has the far right done so well in Austria in particular? The country enjoys one of the highest per capita income levels in the EU, has an extensive welfare system, and has benefited enormously from the opening to Eastern Europe since 1989 (Vienna used to be shabby compared to Berlin; now it’s the other way around). Nor has Austria, until now, suffered from the devastating terror attacks that have afflicted France and Belgium. Picking up on Pope Paul VI’s praise of Austria as an isola felice, the country’s most important post-war political figure, long-time Chancellor Bruno Kreisky (in office 1970-1983), called it an “island of the blessed.” Nonetheless, the Freedom Party has been growing in Austria for more than two decades. If there were Austrian parliamentary elections today, the far right would win.

The Austrian Constitutional Court’s decision to redo the presidential election was aimed at removing even the shadow of a doubt about the legitimacy of the result. But the rise of Austria’s far right, and its ability to contest—and possibly win—highest office in a country without major economic or social problems, tell us at least as much about the new shape of politics in Europe as the UK’s decision to leave the EU. As the Austrian case makes clear, the success of populist parties cannot be reduced to a single explanation. Above all, the country provides an object lesson in how mainstream parties seeking to confront the rise of populist politicians can end up further strengthening them.

Image: Far-right leader Jörg Haider paying tribute to Austrian Nazi veterans, Ulrichsberg, Austria, October 1, 2000. Via. NYR Daily.