Carsten Brzeski’s blog

Political landslide in Austria

The presidential elections didn’t yield a winner, yet, but sent a strong signal to the rest of Europe that populist and right-wing trends are more than a short-lived fashion.

Yesterday’s presidential election as expected ended with no candidate receiving more than 50 percent of the votes, requiring a run-off ballot on 22 May. Six candidates were applying for the presidential office but only two will go into the run-off: Norbert Hofer of the right-wing populist Freedom Party FPÖ and Alexander van der Bellen, former head of the Greens, but running as independent. Remarkably, Norbert Hofer received around 35% of the votes, adding to the latest rise of populist parties all around Europe. This result is a huge defeat for the current government – the Social Democratic Party SPÖ and the Christian democratic and conservative Austrian People’s Party ÖVP – as their respective candidates came in far behind. For the first time since 1945, the president will not be a candidate backed by one of the ruling parties SPÖ or ÖVP.

Once again the ruling coalition has taken a hit. The results of the run-off on 22 May have the potential to further stir up Austrian and maybe even European politics. A victory by Norbert Hofer would clearly send a strong populist signal to the rest of Europe and could eventually lead to further tensions within the government. The government coalition has lost a lot of support over its handling of the refugee crisis. Yet, the rate of agreement in the population had already dropped due to encrusted structures and the bickering of the two parties over reforms. New elections, earlier than the scheduled 2018, should not be excluded. Hofer already threatened to dismiss the current government if he were elected as president. However, even a victory of Alexander van der Bellen could have a strong impact on the political landscape. Although the office of the president in Austria is mainly of a ceremonial nature, the president has the powers to reject a chancellor candidate and members of the cabinet, if there is no clear majority within the parliament. Van der Bellen already announced that he would not swear in any FPÖ politician as chancellor, should he become president. With the FPÖ leading the polls with more than 30% for the general election in 2018 since summer last year, a clash is predestined. Van der Bellen did not rule out, however, whether he would swear in a government involving the FPÖ but not providing the chancellor.

Either way, the normally not so spectacular Austrian election sends a clear signal to the rest of Europe, including Germany. Contrary to the AfD, the FPÖ is not new to the political landscape. It has gone through several transformations and could become a role model, particularly for the German AfD. Moreover, the elections also show that populist and right-wing parties and trends are not a short-lived fashion but have become mainstream and widely acceptable even in the Eurozone core.