By this time next week, Austria will either stand as an Alpine bulwark against the anti-establishment tide or have fallen, the latest domino in populism’s march across the Continent.
On Sunday, Austrians returned to the polls to elect a new president, choosing between the liberal Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green party leader, and Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, an electoral Groundhog Day, that’s because it is. The election is a redo of the presidential election in May. Van der Bellen won that poll by a hair’s breadth, but the Freedom Party, citing technical irregularities, demanded a new election. The country’s highest court, in a controversial ruling, agreed, prompting the do-over.
To add insult to injury, the new election had to be delayed by a month after officials discovered that the adhesive on some postal ballots was defective.
Many Austrians are fed up with the process, which they worry has made them the laughing stock of the EU.
Now, as in the spring, the two candidates are neck-and-neck in the polls. Even the issues are the same, with refugees, trade and the EU all looming large.
The biggest similarity? No one had a clue who’ll win.
What is clear is that the result will be felt far beyond Austria’s borders. In the coming months, voters in the Netherlands, France and Germany also go to the polls, making the Austrian election the first major test of voter appetite for populist prescriptions at a national level in this election season.
With Italians set to vote on Sunday as well — in the referendum on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform — Europe’s already turbulent political landscape could face further destabilizing just in time for Christmas.
“It’s worth remembering that we face a fundamental question over the country’s direction” — Alexander Van der Bellen
Though the Austrian and Italian polls may bear few similarities on paper, citizens of the two countries are essentially deciding on the same question: Do we trust the political status quo? Recent election and referendum results in Europe, whether regional polls in Germany or the U.K.’s Brexit vote, suggest there’s a good chance the answer is ‘No.’
If Austrians heed that call for change, it would mean more than electing Europe’s first far-right head of state since the war. Though Austria’s presidency has traditionally been a ceremonial role, the office carries deep symbolic character.
Freedom Party’s waltz
A Hofer victory would be seen by many as a popular disavowal of the ruling political class — a Social Democrat-led grand coalition — and could trigger new parliamentary elections in the coming months. The Freedom Party would be the likely winner.
As infighting in the grand coalition has sapped support for both the center-left and center-right parties, the Freedom Party has surged ahead. It currently leads national polls with about 35 percent, compared to just 27 percent for its nearest rival, the governing Social Democrats.
If any Western European country is going to put the populist Right in power, it’s likely going to be Austria. Though electing Hofer might risk turning the country into a pariah in the region, Austrians have been there before.
ate considers EU referendum
In 1986, the country elected Kurt Waldheim president despite an international outcry over his wartime record. In 1999, voters flocked to the Freedom Party in national elections, ignoring grave warnings from the European Union and Austria’s neighbors.
Critics worry that normalizing the populists will only legitimize their politics.
Then under the leadership of Jörg Haider, the Freedom Party finished second and joined a coalition led by the center-right People’s Party. The result prompted Austria’s EU partners to impose diplomatic sanctions on Vienna.
In a sign of how much Europe’s politics has changed in the past 15 years, Austria has so far faced no such threats this time around. That’s because far-right politicians like Hofer are no longer an aberration, but a fact of life across the Continent’s political landscape.
Testing ground for Social Democrats
That’s not to say Europe’s establishment parties are sanguine about the threat, but they’ve been forced to find new strategies for confronting it. In that regard, Austria has come to serve the function of a case study, a testing ground.
When German Vice Chancellor and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel visits Vienna this week to meet Chancellor Christian Kern and other European Social Democrats, for example, one of the main topics of discussion will be how to deal with the far Right.
The meeting comes just days after Kern changed tack in his approach with the Freedom Party, dropping his party’s traditionally belligerent stance. During a live debate with Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache on Austrian radio last week, Kern said that despite their differences, he believed that Strache also “wants to take our country forward.”
The friendly debate left many in the country wondering if Kern, who has only been chancellor since May, was hinting the Social Democrats might be open to a coalition with the Freedom Party, something the center Left had ruled out in the past at the national level.
Or was it merely a tactical move, aimed at showing the Social Democrats’ openness to Freedom Party voters?
Whatever the case, the exchange illustrated how the far Right is forcing the establishment parties to rethink their playbook.
Critics worry that the reappraisal could come at the expense of core values, whether over asylum laws or in regard to the EU. Normalizing the populists, they warn, will only legitimize their politics.
As election day approaches, Van der Bellen has tried hard to remind voters, many of whom have been frustrated by the nearly year-long campaign, of what’s at stake.
“It’s worth remembering that we face a fundamental question over the country’s direction,” he said in a recent television interview.
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