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Where do we go from here? Austrian Greens after Van der Bellen’s victory

By Georg Maisser

When the result of the third round of the Austrian presidential election was announced on the 26th January shortly after polling stations closed, it was a surprising anti-climax following a year of mounting suspense and unexpected twists. But the enthusiasm generated at the end of December 2016 already seems far away. While some of the key figures behind the success, such as party manager Stefan Wallner, have quit to look for new challenges, the rest of the party is left with difficult choices and unresolved problems piling up. It is high time to move from bemusement to determination.

The polling institutes were the first to slip up in a very long line of glitches and mistakes during the seemingly endless electoral campaign which started in January 2016. Before the first round of the election, they predicted a solid lead of the popular former Green chairman Alexander Van der Bellen, when it turned out to be Far-Right candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) winning this first leg on the 24th of April with 35% of the votes, and Van der Bellen coming in second with only 21%.

Van der Bellen subsequently did the seemingly impossible and very narrowly won the catch-up race a month later. But the FPÖ activated their long-prepared plan B, cried manipulation, and called for a repeat of the second round. The constitutional court accepted the arguments of the FPÖ in a very controversial judgment, even though there was no proof of manipulation and although statistical analysis demonstrated that there was no hint of it to be found.

But the peak of national embarrassment was yet to come: the envelopes of the postal votes turned out to be of such bad quality that they opened all by themselves. Authorities saw no alternative than to postpone the third and final round from the 2nd of October to the 4th of December.

By then, there had been so many TV confrontations between the two candidates, every aspect of personality and policy thoroughly discussed, that voters were desperately longing for a swift end to the undignified spectacle of endless lies and accusations. As there were no longer any polls being released, there was just no way to know which side people were leaning towards, and what effect international developments, especially Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, would have.

Why did it go Van der Bellen’s way?

After Van der Bellen finally won for good, the influential left-wing Austrian Blogger Robert Misik named the following reasons for this victory: 1.) a big grassroots-campaign, 2.) a broad coalition from the Left to the Centre-Right, 3.) voters from the centre being alienated by the radical and dirty style of the FPÖ in the weeks before the election, 4.) as a result: hundred percent- mobilisation in for VdB and demobilisation in the camp of the FPÖ, 5.) a very smart campaign of the VdB marketing team, winning over swing voters from the conservative-centre, without alienating voters from the Left, 6.) a shock-reaction to the Trump election in the US.

There are some very positive points for the Green Party in this list: grassroot campaigning was started only a few years ago in the Austrian Green Party and this presidential election has set a new standard. The campaign team of Van der Bellen, practically the same as that of the Green Party, has learned a lot and will be able to use this knowledge in the next elections. The personal links to more rural regions of Austria, traditionally quite the opposite of green strongholds, could prove very valuable.

Particularly from a European perspective, it is interesting to point out that Van der Bellen made an explicitly pro-European campaign a condition sine qua non for running as president. Many friends strongly advised him against this strategy because of the rising scepticism towards the European Union, but in the end Van der Bellen’s conviction in this regard became a winning point in the year of Brexit and Donald Trump.

Some observers might find reason for comfort and even optimism in the message that pro-European majorities in European countries can still be found, and the huge success of the presidential election showed how much enthusiasm and power an electoral movement can generate.

After the party, the hangover

But all the positive news aside, there was tension building up within the Green party: the party members showed impressive discipline and stoicism while tirelessly campaigning for a former chairman who avoided talking about any green issue and even had to perform a U-turn or two on his former positions, in order to stay electable for the rather conservative rural population in Austria. In particular, his newfound love for the Austrian army – as a president, he will be supreme commander – as well as his commitment to ‘law and order’ and his rebranding of the notion of ‘Heimat’, difficult to translate but roughly signifying ‘homeland’, a term often misused for nationalistic and xenophobic purposes, was hard to swallow for some people in the party.

So it was not unexpected when after only a few days of heartfelt joy and widespread relief, a struggle within the Green party erupted and made front page news. On the face of it, the clash has been between the usual suspects and on an old topic: should the Green party engage in ‘Left populism’ and is the leadership of the party disconnected from the real working people?

While the style of this recurring dogfight can be attributed to a certain solipsism of its proponents, the underlying conflict can’t. There are very real strategic risks for the Green party, in the short as well as in the long term. And many in the party are afraid that the wrong lessons will be learned from Van der Bellen’s victory.

In particular, the outright rejection of the FPÖ, which was certainly necessary to win this victory, and the resulting polarisation, risk backfiring. A firm anti-FPÖ discourse has been important for the Green party for a long time now and it is tempting to go in the next General Election hoping that the fear of a FPÖ government will push voters to go for Green once again. But in the Austrian political system, it is traditionally the privilege of the strongest party to name a chancellor and to form a government. In the regional election in Vienna, the Social Democrats and the FPÖ are playing ‘duel for the major’ time and time again, and consequently the Green party under-performs every time in this otherwise very green city. The same thing could and likely will happen now on a national level, with the FPÖ stably leading the polls for nearly a year.

And with the sharp turn to the right of the Austrian Conservatives, in order to win back voters from the Far Right, more than ever all eyes are fixed on the FPÖ.

While the anticipated polarisation will undoubtedly favour the Social Democrats who can’t wait to mobilise the Van der Bellen-Anti-FPÖ-camp in their favour, for the Green party there are not many viable options left. Given their track record, not many Green activists are led by past successes to expect future victories. On the contrary, the modest result from the last general election will be very hard to defend.

The challenge of polarisation would be in itself a tough nut to crack for the campaign team of the Green party. But there is also a rising unease which has its origin beyond the narrow borders of Austrian politics. With the current revival of nationalism taking hold among ever larger parts of the western population, we can’t help but notice the rising desperation of Green parties across Europe.

The Green promise: continuity rather than change?

It is beyond doubt that the most significant electoral successes of the Greens have been modelled on the example of Winfried Kretschmann in Baden-Württemberg. Following his lead, the Green party has to become the slightly more modern, slightly more social, and slightly more ecological alternative to the previous ruling parties. Just like we saw in the Van der Bellen campaign, Green candidates are most successful when they stand for a refreshed form of continuity rather than for radical change.

Obviously, there are Green flagship initiatives, won in long and hard battles, and it would be wrong to diminish these achievements. But progressive legislation and policies in line with green ideas, whether on food safety, energy, air pollution, or in other areas, do not require Green parties – and such policies have been introduced by other parties on numerous occasions, in order to address problems which are plainly damaging to people’s well being.

In the time of neoliberal hegemony, the focus on solving such problems was a very valuable task and when it was done well, impressive rewards could be won by the Green parties in the elections. But any remaining doubts about the coming of a new age should be erased by the first days of Donald Trump’s rule: the comeback of nationalism will be so hard and fast that it will just sweep away the neoliberal coalition and the neoliberal hegemony, which have governed the western world for the last decades.

The conservative parties in Europe are already eager to copy the example from the other side of the Atlantic and implement their form of nationalistic authoritarian capitalism. Britain will pride itself for having set the tone, and the same can be said of Victor Orbán in Hungary. The end of the neoliberal hegemony, so impatiently desired and wished for, has caught the Left by surprise. And this is even more true for the Green movement in Austria. We have long faced the dilemma of being a kind-of-left party without any links to or street credibility with workers or the lower middle class.

We were relying heavily on the conscience of the well-off, the social Christians, the Social Democrats who were disgusted by the obvious corruption of their party, as well as the children of conservatives who felt that their social status was unearned and felt a sense of responsibility towards the rest of society.

After hegemony: Entering the new age of ideology

But as we are entering a new age of ideology, our well-intentioned promise of doing slightly better than the rest will no longer be enough. The Green movement is caught off guard, without a convincing story in the face of nationalism. Actually, our dilemma lies in the fact that our opposition to the ruling hegemony has always been half-hearted: we want to maintain many aspects of the so fervently criticised (neo)liberal model, but we also want to reinstate a sort of socialist state; we want an emphasis on regional economy and at the same time have open borders for international trade; we want these open borders for refugees, but nobody wants hundreds of thousands refugees every year; we want new labour-saving technology but we also don’t want to give up the link of paid work to a meaningful life.

This is why the discussion about Left populism mentioned above is so misguided. It is obvious that the Green movement will destroy itself when it decides to go after the voters of the FPÖ just to alienate their traditional electorate with shrill rhetoric or demands.

But it is equally obvious that the potential for the Green party is shrinking at an alarming rate, because the population has the impression that the Greens don’t have the right answers to the multiple crisis we are experiencing. And more often than not, this impression is correct. If the Green movement isn’t capable of presenting a forceful and convincing narrative of a new world to come and to point to a plausible means to creating it, it will lose its place to parties that can do exactly that.

Unfortunately, at the moment only the nationalistic narrative is able to captivate the imagination of the masses and spark optimism about the future. Left experiments in this direction, best embodied by Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, have not generated the power needed, because large parts of the political Left are still unable and unwilling to give up the truths of the neoliberal hegemony they have bought into so completely.

But those old truths of the neoliberal hegemony are right now being dismantled before our eyes: A reckless and powerful nationalism with a very clear vision of the future is about to reshape and remodel all those things which were perceived as largely unchangeable: the functioning of international trade, the relation between the state and the individuals, the role of government in the economy, the value of the environment, the rights of minorities, and so on.

In this situation, it is high time to shake ourselves out of this complacency as well as paralysis. Political ecology has the potential to create the narrative and the political strategies so direly needed to fight reactionary nationalism without defending neoliberalism or re-implementing backward looking socialism.

In Austria, the Van der Bellen campaign has taught many young activists the addictive power of political engagement and many of them will be standing by to support the Green party in the next General Election. But it is important not to let them down. For this, we need to replace the defensive fight against the Far Right with a more optimistic vision of a new world worth fighting for. For a truly sustainable new global order, for a vision of a good life for all.

Where do we go from here? Austrian Greens after Van der Bellen’s victory