So Austria does not have a right wing populist President. Alexander Van Der Bellen defeated Norbert Hofer by 31000 votes, or 50.3% to 49.7% – summary of the result from Der Standard here. But that was too close for comfort. It’s also not enough to point out that Van Der Bellen was not the best candidate – that may be true (and the TV ‘debate’ between the candidates was excruciating), but the parties that have dominated Austrian politics for decades (SPÖ and ÖVP) ended up letting a slightly cranky former Green get into the second round. The SPÖ is also the party that, not able to find a Bundeskanzler from within its own ranks had to go for a former boss of the railways instead.
Today we can breathe a little sigh of relief, but little more.
Looking at the electoral map of Austria (click here, then scroll down), where cities predominately voted for Van Der Bellen and the countryside for Hofer, can lead to the conclusion most succinctly tweeted by Jeremy Cliffe that cosmopolitans versus nativists is the way European politics is going to look in the future. Yet such a conclusion fills me with dread – playing the politics of identity that way can only lead to groups being pitted against one another, with each choosing its enemies onto whom blame can be apportioned. Listening to Hofer makes me wince, with his second hand car salesman smarm edged with malice, complaining about the system stacked against him, and how Austrians are at a disadvantage and how no-one who has not worked in the private sector is not entitled to a view on how the economy works, and how the challenge of migration is more than Austria can bear (while the country also contributes little to solving the root cause of the issue).
Yet the discontent expressed by the people who vote for Hofer, and for the likes of Le Pen and Farage, is very real. That is why today’s result cannot just be shrugged off. Hofer did not win this time, but he might well next time. He and his ilk are not going to be pushed back with rhetoric about the dangers of the far right, because at least a decent chunk of those voting for him are trying to send a signal that the ‘system’ is somehow broken. The populists are the anti-system choice. What reassurance can Van Der Bellen, or indeed the SPÖ’s Kern, actually give that the system is not indeed broken? In other contexts the reassurance given by the British political class against Brexit is that leaving the EU will make things worse, not that the future will look better. Hollande’s appeal is that he is not Le Pen, but what is his way forward, actually?
One way, I think, would be to find ways of shoring up the economic stability of nervous populations who have been buffeted by the financial crisis, fear their life chances are less good than those of their parents, and see the central planks of the post-war European economic bargain slipping away from them. Get a decent education, work hard, and you too can live a secure and comfortable life. That’s actually called social democracy. But that seems to be very much in short supply. There ought to be common ground between me (an urban dwelling, self employed, liberal-lefty-Green) and factory workers in the Ruhr or farm labourers in Styria. That’s the kind of big-tent left that (whisper it quietly) Blair and Schröder tried to construct back at the start of the 1990s, unifying those who identify with the ideals of the left with those who need the political economy of their countries and of the EU as a whole to help re-stack the system more in their favour, rather than accept the neoliberal view that we are all just inputs into the global economy.
We would do best to take account of the worries and concerns expressed by those who voted Hofer, rather than focus on trying to keep the populist right out of power. I am not holding my breath that is going to happen, but until it does every election in Europe is going to leave battered mainstream parties clinging onto power.