The recent Austrian elections show there is a lot of discontent with the governing parties and their management of the crises of recent years; in particular the migration crisis, which is an obvious boost for the far right. Nevertheless, to really understand what is happening, one has to consider not only the past and the present, but especially the future.

A different story of the Austrian presidential election 2016

The earthquake felt by the Viennese population on Monday 25th April only reached 4.1 on the Richter scale and was thus hardly comparable in magnitude with the political one the day before. In contrast to all the polls before the election, it was not Alexander Van der Bellen (21,34%), former head of the Green Party, but Norbert Hofer (35,05%), candidate of the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ), who won the race in the first round of the presidential election. But what really shocked the political establishment was the catastrophic result of the two governing coalition parties. Social Democrat (SPÖ) candidate Rudolf Hundstorfer (11, 28%) came in at fourth place, Andreas Khol (11,12%) of the Conservative Peoples Party (ÖVP) only fifth. 

Nationalism for a better future?

Right now, there seems to be only one positive and optimistic story about our political and economic destiny. The story is old and endlessly repeated but it has never really lost its appeal, despite its obvious flaws and the misfortune it brought to so many people. The story is the one of “our people”, of “national unity”, disturbed by outsiders, who are so different that they bring havoc upon “us”. In protectionism, closed borders and ethnic homogeneity lies the promise of peace and prosperity.

The story is basically the same in France and the United States; in Poland and Austria. For decades, this story was kept quite small in most countries of the West, but it was never completely gone.

Other stories were more important and sounded truer: the benefits of free trade and borderless capitalism will make us richer and happier. The state is a burden and privatisation leads to prosperity. Against nationalism and linked to the idea of a common free market were the powerful stories of a fundamental equality of all people as humans, but also as consumers and producers, the story of the rule of law and of universal human rights.

Although Austrian presidential candidates, traditionally comparable in their political significance to the British queen, don’t have to offer a whole narrative of the political and economic destiny of the nation, it still helps to look at the stories told by the respective parties and political movements to understand what happened on Sunday, April 24th:

The ÖVP sticks pretty much to the neoliberal mantra: “There is no alternative”. For them, solidarity is weakness, which is why the Christian ÖVP despises the Christian help organisation Caritas for example. The Social Democrats (Rudolf Hundstorfer, 11,28%) can’t think of an alternative either, but they argue that while everything is going to be worse, with them in charge, bad things will happen a little later. A message which, until recently, secured them a considerable share of the vote of old people, hoping not to see the inevitable happen during their lifetime.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

The multiple crises of the last years have delegitimised the economic narratives of the political centre, just like everywhere in Europe and in the US. Few people expect the life of their children to be better or easier than their own. It became clear to nearly everybody that there was no limit in the global race to the bottom in regards to ecological and social standards.

A clear sign of the weakness of the hegemony is the rise of outsiders of the political system nearly everywhere: Trump, Sanders, AfD, Corbyn, Front National. The process of abandoning one’s “Weltanschauung” is hard and slow.

But something broke in 2015.

The migration crisis provided facts that looked just too much like the dystopian predictions of the far right. Suddenly, what the FPÖ has been saying since 1986 (when Jörg Haider took over the party) just seemed true to many people.

While Haider’s peak in popularity (26% in the general election in 1999) can, at least in retrospect, be interpreted much more like a lust in changing heads and policies, we now have a much more fundamental – if not outright – revolutionary mood for change in Austria.

After the crimes of Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/16, the police and the media are now reporting every incident involving an asylum seeker and thus reinforcing the picture of a rise of (sexual) violence, although so far the statistics seem to tell a different, much less frightening story.

In Austrian newspapers and even more so on the Facebook-Timelines of many people, the nationalist story just fits the facts. Forgotten is the tragic history of exclusion, repression and genocide. Nationalism appears to many as a capable defender of Heimat; homeland.

Further plausibility is added to the nationalist story by the acts and attitudes of the centre government, which are by now often indistinguishable from the far right. The governing ÖVP and SPÖ still cannot bring themselves to abandon neoliberalism, but they are discovering and willingly adopting the nationalist alternatives to human rights, rule of law and to Europe as an idea and ideal.

The appeal of the FPÖ has always been deeply anchored in an idealised past. Because of his lasting popularity they speak highly of the socialist chancellor Kreisky, they nurture a longing for a “Heimat” without the complexity of the European Union, for a mono-ethnic Austria cosily placed at the far end of the continent, next to the frightening but also comforting impenetrability of the iron curtain. The FPÖ’s central promise, no matter if it is on the topic of migration, ecology, education, gender and economy, is and always has been: you don’t have to change.

Nevertheless, we are inclined to call those who vote for Hofer now the “progressives”, because they are part of the growing camp with all the enthusiasm and illusions that come from a winning movement.

The rest of the population is sticking to the old story of a feasible marriage of individual freedom, economic neoliberalism and social welfare. This camp was occupied by the two candidates from SPÖ and ÖVP, but also, more successfully, by Irmgard Griss (18,94%) and the Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen in the first turn of the election.

The nearly unknown former judge and independent candidate Irmgard Griss seemed to offer the possibility to vote for integrity and human rights without evoking the shale taste of betrayed promises by the political establishment. She might even have made the race for the second place against Van der Bellen, but it became increasingly clear that she is much more conservative than she seemed to be – to the point that even now she can’t bring herself to call her voters to take a stand against the far right.

In the end, it was Van der Bellen who won the race for second place. He is a fierce defender of universal human rights and the rule of law and came into the race already famous for his careful thinking and measured expression in front of TV cameras and his refusal to have it replaced by professional media coaching. This earned him respect and admiration far beyond the Green electorate. The story he tells is one of righteousness, of social, humanitarian, and ecological responsibility, of civic values and political stability. Although the former university professor was a member of the Social Democrats before joining the Greens in the early 1990s, he is very attractive to catholic voters in the tradition of Caritas, Pope Francis and “love thy neighbour”, comparable in his common-sense political thinking of Winfried Kretschmann of Baden-Württemberg.

No “cordon sanitaire” to be expected

This could have been the perfect initial position for a majority for the Green candidate, especially in the face of a far right candidate, who is convinced of the existence of a chemtrails-conspiracy and who is member of a fencing fraternity. But anyone who believed in the possibility of a cordon sanitaire, mirroring the support of Chirac against Le Pen, was bitterly disappointed on Sunday the 24th. Not even the Social Democrats want to call their voters to the support of Van der Bellen (although many of their elected figures, including the Chancellor, do so personally), much less the Conservatives.

There are at least two reasons for this refusal: firstly, they are preparing to be in a junior partnership with FPÖ after the next general election, and at the latest in 2018. Secondly, they started to believe the nationalist narrative of the FPÖ and plan to act on it. The just think they are doing it more “responsibly” than the FPÖ would.

Ironically, this political strategy of adopting an adversarial narrative with the promise to add ones own note is not unknown to the Greens. The way Van der Bellen was visibly concerned by the weakness of the two governing parties clearly spelled it out: this Green party has not enough confidence in its own narrative. The terminal crisis of centrist politics seems to be to the Greens as much a problem as to the Conservatives and to the Social Democrats, because much like the New Left accepted neoliberalism and just tried to make it “more social”, the Greens basically just tried to make it “greener.”

As long as the party remains entrapped in a Green version of centrist politics, no alternative narrative will be able to inspire a large part of the population. If we, as a Green Party, are not able to reconcile the liberal story of the rule of law and universal human rights with a clear opposition to neoliberal globalisation, to its competition between humans and states, and to its threats to our welfare institutions, it will be very difficult to oppose a simplistic anti-systemic and anti-liberal nationalism.

Paradoxically, in the short run, this lack of an alternative and its grounding in the centre might prove an asset after all: Van der Bellen has to rally all of those not willing to vote for the extreme right and it would be impossible to do so by being closely allied to a really new and different narrative. So he has to stay clear of commitments, clear of ideas, clear of positions, and just promise to be what he is in the eyes of a lot of people anyway: a likeable, rather wise, clever and funny older man whom one can trust not to do stupid things.

It is impossible to say if this will be enough against an opponent with such huge momentum. Former constitutional judges and some journalists have giving a warning, pointing out that, following the letters of the Constitution, the Austrian President is actually a very powerful figure. This is little known by the Austrian population, as the President was, by consensus, always restricted to a purely representative role.

After the second round on May 22nd, Norbert Hofer could be well placed to help FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache in a Poland – or Hungary – like resurrection of the anti-liberal, authoritarian and nationalistic state. Or, to quote Hofer himself: “You will be surprised what will be possible”.

To close on a more positive note: if we are really witnessing not only a passing weakness but the end of the hegemony of the neoliberal narrative of the last decades, the position of the Green party is full of traps and dangers, but also full of chances. There are and will be a lot of voters out there looking for new ways to see and understand the complexity of the world. Green topics are already close to their hearts, from producing organic food to local commerce, but we now have to offer a comprehensive world-view, from the role of the state to a clear social and economic position. This is especially necessary as a nationalistic reframing of Green topics is already taking place, as we have seen in Austria with TTIP, where the FPÖ tries to profit heavily from anti-TTIP votes.

Today, the Green Movement seems by far best placed to play the role of major alternative to the nationalistic, reactionary movement we are seeing right now all over Europe. But it will be crucial to stop looking timidly to the failing centre for advice and to start acting self-confidently on our own.

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