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Black eye for Austria

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
May 23, 2016

Right wing populists nearly won the role of president in Austria, losing just barely to a Green party member. But the loss only offers a brief chance to catch your breath, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

Die Flaggen von Österreich und der EU
Image: DW/B. Riegert

A thrilling election has come to an end, with Austria barely escaping becoming an international embarrassment. The new president will be left-leaning liberal Professor Alexander Van der Bellen and not the right-wing populist Norbert Hofer.

All across Europe, top politicians from Social Democratic parties and average citizens alike were afraid that Austria would become the first EU country to have a member of the far-right as head of state. With just a miniscule plurality of votes - 31,000 - Van der Bellen was able to carry the day in a highly polarized election.

Whatever the result, for Austria this presidential election was a political earthquake. Voters punished the parties from the currently governing coalition - the Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party. There was no middle ground; the only two candidates left standing were those from the outer circle and choosing between them was a vexation. Many cast their vote for Van der Bellen not because they found the Green party member a great politician, but because they wanted to stop the right-wing populist from coming to power.

The election likewise showed just how strong the EU skeptical, Islam-critical, anti-refugee, national-conservative camp in Austria is.

The right is growing in Austria

Austria's Freedom Party (FPÖ) will certainly use the tailwind from the presidential election to try to expand its power. Norbert Hofer, the presidential candidate who lost in this round has already stated his intention of running for chancellor; in other words, the head of government in Austria. The next parliamentary elections are in 2018 and, in the meantime, the FPÖ will use its position as the third largest power in parliament to turn up the pressure on the other two previously big parties, the SPÖ and ÖVP. Public opinion polls likewise have the Freedom Party ahead. It has become an acceptable group and is viewed as a capable coalition partner.

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert
DW's Bernd Riegert

The just recently inaugurated chancellor - Social Democrat Christian Kern - was only sworn in a few days before the election. He's expected to now experience a load of opposition, with political experts in Austria predicting early elections.

Norbert Hofer, who had presented himself in recent weeks as a moderate, but who has close connections within right-wing extremist circles, has promised a system change. As president he wanted to establish a more direct democracy and remove the established grand coalition of Social Democrats and conservatives. It won't come that far. Alexander Van der Bellen isn't quite so radical, he, too, has promised changes, as fas as his new position allows.

A warning for Europe

The European Union and its institutions in Brussels can take a deep breath for the time being. Attacks against its integrity will, for now, not be coming down from the Hofburg, the seat of the Austrian president. Van der Bellen is actually for more of Europe, not less, and he is against the closure of borders when it comes to refugee policies. He is himself a child of migrants. The tight election in Austria allows time for a quick break but it is not a change in the tide.

The trend in the EU is clearly showing itself to be a division between right-wing and left-wing, populism and re-nationalization. In Finland, right-wing populists are a part of the government. In Poland and Hungary they are the heads of government. Slovakia and Greece have left-wing EU-skeptical populist governments. In Italy, the "Five Star" left-wing populist movement is the third-strongest in parliament. In France, Socialists and the center-right are being confronted with an ever-strengthening right-wing populist National Front; Marine Le Pen will certainly make a run for president in the coming year. In Germany, the nationalistic Alternative for Germany, with its EU-critical, anti-immigration and anti-Islam agenda, is growing. And the list goes on.

The currently governing parties which support the EU have yet to find a means to remedy this trend. The drama in Austria is a last warning.

If the populist right in Austria had won, that would have added more fuel to the "Brexit" fire burning in Great Britain at a time when they are soon go to the polls to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU. British populists have achieved something that the right and left extremists on the continent could only dream of doing: They have brought the possibility of leaving the EU within reach. The results could be just as razor thin in Great Britain as they were in Austria. Europe is changing; it's crumbling from within. Who can stop these fatal developments?

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Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union