Austria Rejects Right-Wing Populism

While we were reading, writing, eating, sleeping and breathing da trumpeter, things were happening on the other side of the globe!  Yes, folks, there really is life in places outside the boundaries of the U.S.!  Let us first go to Austria.

Van der Bellen

Alexander Van der Bellen

The Austrian election, which I have written about before, finally took place on Sunday!  And … drumroll … the Trump-like populist candidate, Norbert Hofer, DID NOT win!  This, folks, may well be a blow to the populist movement of those such as Trump, LePen, and Wilders, and I am happy to see it. Center-left candidate Alexander Van der Bellen won with 53.3% of the vote at the end of the day.  This was Austria’s third try at a second-round election between Van der Bellen and Hofer.  The first was thrown out after certain irregularities were discovered in some voting districts, and the second failed when it was found the glue on the absentee envelopes was defective and the envelopes came open in the mail.  There are several things to note about this election.

Hofer

Norbert Hofer

First, and I would congratulate Mr. Hofer on this, is the gracious concession he made when it became obvious that Van der Bellen would be the next president of Austria.  Mr. Hofer congratulated Mr. Van der Bellen and called on all Austrians to “stick together and work together”.  What is so striking about this, at least in my opinion, is that I keep trying to picture Donald Trump saying the same, had the results been different last month and Hillary Clinton had won.  Nope, I simply cannot picture it, because I am 100% certain he would not have been a gracious loser.  So, while I am glad Mr. Van der Bellen won, and I did not agree with Hofer’s right-wing platform, I tip my hat to the man for his grace and dignity in a tough moment.  This, folks, is how mature, intelligent people act.

Hofer’s platform, just as other right-wing populists, was based on anti-immigration, but Hofer also planned to conduct a referendum in Austria similar to Brexit earlier this year in the UK, to determine whether Austria would stay in the EU.  Thus, European leaders breathed a collective sigh of relief when the news came of Hofer’s defeat.  German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel called Hofer’s defeat “a clear victory for good sense against right-wing populism”. Let us hope.

In the U.S., we have Trump, in France they have LePen, and the Netherlands have Geert Wilders. Though they may differ on other issues, the one they all stand firm on is immigration … and this, as we here in the U.S. saw last month with the election of Trump, is a growing movement.  Back in April, when the original election was held, Hofer won 35.1% of the vote, compared to 21.3% for Van der Bellen.  Prior to the first runoff election, the polls were favourable for a Hofer win, though Van der Bellen actually did win by a very small margin.  I would have laid odds on Hofer winning, especially after the Trump win, which I thought would encourage more voters across the European continent to take a chance on the populist candidates.  So, what happened?

I do not know … I have not had time to study the situation much, and even the most seasoned analysts have not reached a consensus yet. At any rate, it is surely more complex than anything I could cover in a single blog post, but I have a theory.  Since Trump’s November 8th electoral win (Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.5 million votes), he has been acting in an increasingly dangerous manner.  He has thrown caution and common sense to the wind in matters pertaining to foreign relations, he has selected racists, white supremacists and other ill-qualified people for his advisors and for cabinet positions, and he has continued to flip-flop on the rhetoric and promises he made to those who voted him into office.  His antics and the mayhem he is creating are well-publicized across Europe.  I wonder if the Austrians looked at Trump’s actions and at least enough of them switched their votes to Van der Bellen because they decided they really did not want a trumpeter in a leadership position in their government?

I think Hofer’s defeat must be a blow to the right-wing populist movement in Europe.  While I do not think it signals a death knell, I do think it will have a slow-down effect on populism overall.  Germany had feared that a win by Hofer’s Freedom Party in Austria would encourage similar gains by the far right in Germany and in neighbouring France and Holland. Unemployment, nationalism, immigration and an overall desire for change from the establishment are the major issues fueling right-wing populism in Europe, as they were in the U.S., and those issues are not likely to dissolve any time soon, so the movement is not likely to die altogether.

The Austrian election, similar to the U.S. election last month, was divisive and contentious, with one Austrian news outlet dubbing the election an “Election of Hate”. In fact, much of the rhetoric is reminiscent of that from the U.S.

Mr Hofer’s Freedom Party portrayed Mr Van der Bellen as a forgetful geriatric, and suggested he had worked as a spy for East Germany’s hated Stasi secret police. Mr Van der Bellen used a video broadcast by an 89-year-old woman Auschwitz survivor to denounce his opponent as somebody who “ brings out the basest in people.”

Critics denounced Mr Hofer as a Nazi because of his anti-immigrant, nationalist rhetoric. On hundreds of his Freedom Party election campaign placards his photograph was defaced with a Hitler moustache.

“We think he is a Nazi. He is against women, foreigners and Europe. He comes from a party which was founded by Nazis,”  a young woman protester told Austria’s ORF television channel filming a “No Nazi for President” demonstration in central Vienna on Saturday. – Independent, 04 December 2016  Link to full story

The past year and a half have wrought changes and surprises.  Most people did not believe the UK would vote for Brexit or that the U.S. would vote for Trump.  I think there may be many more surprises in store, but for today, I am relieved that Van der Bellen won the election in Austria and have hopes that this is at least a small step toward slowing the right-wing movement, which I firmly believe carries some very real dangers.  I think it is important to keep abreast of the politics around the world, as we are not an island,  but a part of a much larger world.  What we do affects those around the globe, and what they do affects us.  We tend to forget that these days.

The other news that I had planned as part of this post is the resignation in Italy of centrist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.  However, the hour has grown late and I have rambled for over 1,000 words already, so that will be ‘Part II’ either later today or, more likely, tomorrow.  Until then …

10 thoughts on “Austria Rejects Right-Wing Populism

  1. Some good news in the eye of the storm brewing. I saw an interview with former UK PM Tony Blair on PBS a couple of days ago. He is touring to advocate for the moderates to push for logical and data-informed change. He said he hopes the UK will wise up on Brexit and see that isolationism is not the answer.

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  2. Haven’t people always feared what they do not understand? This helps us to explain, to some degree, the fear of immigrants — coupled with a weak economy and the fear of lost jobs. As the human population grows and the planet becomes more and more crowded fear of others who differ from us taking away what we think is ours will simply increase. Good for Austria — the exception that proves the rule.

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    • Yes, I agree with that … fear of the unknown, the misunderstood. But why does it not affect us all? Yes, I am sure that upbringing is some of it, but I have a dear friend who was raised in the south, his parents and siblings are all very much racist, anti-immigrant, gun-toting Trumpeters, yet he is the exact opposite … much common sense, very liberal-thinker. I ponder these things, and I just don’t understand. Sigh. But yes, as you saw, our friend Choosing was quite happy with the Austrian outcome! 🙂

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  3. Yes, we are all very happy! 🙂 (Except for those who actually voted for Hofer of course.) You asked about the “why”. From what I have heard, two things played a role – amongst others of course, as politics is always complex: Firstly, event though the Austrian people as such love to rant and complain (I am allowed to say that, being one of them 😉 ) and one of their favourite subject indeed is the EU these days, many do realise we are better of within the EU. Generally speaking small countries proportionally gain a lot within the EU. Secondly, apparently quite a lot asked themselves the question “Do we really want to be the first country in Europe with a right-wing head of state? Is that how we want to be seen by the world?” Normally no-one really cares about Austrian presidential elections. I think the last one that got any attention was when Kurt Waldheim was elected (but that is a different story altogether, and a complicated one too). But now a lot of attention zoomed in on us. I guess after being the laughing stock of Europe because of first the irregularities, then the wrong glue (!!), the Austrians decided to win back some creditability. 😉
    Having said that, I am not sure if it will have any impact on our next elections for parliament (either 2017 or 2018, depending on how day-to-day-politics goes over the next few months). The FPÖ probably will still score high. – But until then, we can walk proudly again. 🙂

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  4. Austria’s election results created a huge sigh of relief everywhere. A sign not everyone wants a demagogue in power. I hope there is strong opposition to the right wing parties at all the elections held in Europe next year.
    xxx Gigantic Hugs xxx

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