Last Friday, after 50 weeks of campaigning, Austria’s longest political campaign for its presidential election finally came to an end. This Sunday, Austrian voters will not only decide who their next president will be, but their decision might also have a great influence on the future political direction of Austria as well as the future political development in Europe. However, this will not be the first time Austrian voters have decided on this matter in 2016, marking the end of a political odyssey in this turbulent year.
This odyssey started with the need for a new president after the (now) former president Heinz Fischer had served two terms and was not eligible to be elected for a third successive term. On December 17, 2015 the announcement of an independent candidate marked the beginning of this presidential campaign. In the course of this campaign, six candidates gathered and submitted the necessary amount of signatures to be official candidates in the election, which was held on April 24, 2016.
In this first round of the election, Norbert Hofer, candidate of the populist far right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) party, surprisingly came first with 35% of the votes, contrary to what the polls predicted. Alexander Van der Bellen, former party leader of the Greens and contesting as an independent candidate, came second with 21%. Independent candidate Griss came third with 19% while the two candidates representing the grand coalition with its two governing parties, Hundsdorfer, candidate of the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), and Kohl, candidate of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), only received 11% of the votes.
Since no candidate received a majority of at least 50 % of the votes, a second round was necessary and the two candidates with the most votes, Hofer and Van der Bellen, proceeded to the run-off vote on May 22. The first round itself however already proved to be historic, since it was the first time in the history of Austria’s Second Republic that a candidate backed by the ÖVP or SPÖ was not about to become the new president, marking the end of the political dominance of the established Volksparteien on the federal level and being another sign of the demise of established catch-all parties in Western Europe.
The second round of the election turned out to be a close race, with the final results declaring Van der Bellen as the winner with 50.35% of the votes, just 31,000 votes more than Hofer. However, on June 8, the FPÖ announced that they would contest the outcome of the election in the Constitutional Court. On July 1, the results of the second round were annulled by the Constitutional Court after they found that Austrian electoral law had been disregarded in a few administrative districts, while also making clear that there were no indications of any manipulations of the votes. Thus, the re-run of the second round was set for October 2. However, in September the Austrian interior ministry announced that the re-run would be postponed until the December 4, 2016 due to technical problems with the adhesive of the voting envelopes.
Besides making it look like Austria is incapable of holding elections properly, this election and its campaign showed the increasing polarisation of Austrian politics and society.
Besides making it look like Austria is incapable of holding elections properly, this election and its campaign showed the increasing polarisation of Austrian politics and society. Both candidates could not be more different: On the one side, there is Van der Bellen. A 72-year-old economics professor born to Russian-Estonian refugees in Austria; former member of the SPÖ before joining the Greens in 1992 and becoming their leader from 1997 until 2008; a supporter of social liberal policies, the EU, and European federalism, representing the cosmopolitan and liberal side of the country.
On the other side, there is Hofer. A 45-year-old former engineer and career politician, member of the FPÖ since 1993, close advisor to FPÖ leader Strache and Third President of the National Council, co-responsible for the official party program and ideology consisting of support for nationalistic and conservative policies and a declaration of belonging to the German Volksgemeinschaft, and member of the völkisch nationalistic student fraternity Marko-Germania, but also portrayed as the friendly and young face of the far-right FPÖ.
The main debates in the presidential campaign focused on refugees and immigration, TTIP and CETA, the EU and the international role of Austria as well as the role of the president. While Van der Bellen’s campaign centred on the idea of unity, impartiality, and a good international reputation of Austria, Hofer’s campaign and his supporters relied on anti-immigration, anti-Islam, good relations with Russia and the Visegrad states, and Eurosceptic rhetoric as well as on the spreading of false rumours about Van der Bellen, ranging from him being a communist to a spy to having cancer and dementia and Nazis in his family history.
TV debates between both candidates often resulted in personal attacks and a lack of informative and civilised discussions. Social Media became a battlefield for supporters of both candidates, sometimes resulting into death threats and subsequent police investigations. Although events such as the Brexit referendum and with it the rise of public support for the EU within Austria made Hofer tone down his Eurosceptic rhetoric and claim that he and his party never supported a referendum about leaving the EU and do not intend to do so, even though history shows the opposite, as well as him advising other FPÖ politicians to stop wearing a blue cornflower symbol, which is connected to antisemitism and pan-German ideas, in order to appeal to a wider audience, the whole development of this presidential race made it most likely the most aggressive and bitterest one in decades, unusual for Austrian politics and certainly for an Austrian presidential election. After all, the role of the president is de facto largely ceremonial.
However, its role is de jure a bit more than just ceremonial, which is the reason why this presidential election matters much more than usual. Throughout the presidential race, both candidates and their campaigns focused on topics in which the president has barely any say, creating the appearance of a president with vastly more power than in reality, which also drew criticism from the then-incumbent president Fischer. However, while Van der Bellen repeatedly made it clear that he only supports the largely ceremonial figure role of the president and would continue the well-respected performance of former president Fischer, Hofer repeatedly stated that he would like to see the president vested with “real powers”. In connection to this vision, Hofer’s most infamous sentence, which he said in a TV debate in April, was (directly translated) “You are going to be surprised at what is all possible.”
To make it clear, since the Second World War the president acts a ceremonial representative of Austria, signing laws introduced and passed by the government and the parliament, appointing the new government based on the results of the National Council elections, going on state visits, and attending the Vienna State Opera Ball; altogether acting like a republican ceremonial substitution for an Austrian emperor. Yet, this role was only described like that in the Austrian constitution from 1920 until 1929. Since 1929 and again since the end of the Second World War, the Austrian constitution grants the president powers similar to the powers of the German presidents of the Weimar Republic, which contributed to the political instability of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the NSDAP under Hitler. However, while Germany learned from its mistakes and knew the potential threat of such powers to the political and economic stability of their country, Austria did not change its constitution, thus allowing the Austrian president to dismiss the Chancellor and the Austrian federal government, to appoint a new Chancellor, to dissolve the National Council on advice of the federal government, and to rule by emergency decree in times of crisis for four weeks.
So far, none of the presidents during the Second Republic have used those powers. Nevertheless, the rhetoric used by Hofer and his party, ranging from demands for early National Council re-elections to refusing to sign bills passed and supported by the parliament and remarks about a possible civil war in the future made by party leader Strache as well as wishing for a stronger president, does create the possibility that Hofer, if he wins, will decide to use the presidential powers to the fullest. In such a case, various scenarios could occur such as one where a president Hofer would dismiss the current Chancellor Kern and his government, appoint his party leader Strache as the new Chancellor with the task of forming a new government who would then request the president to dissolve the National Council in order to have early re-elections.
The rhetoric used by Hofer and his party does create the possibility that Hofer would decide to use the presidential powers to the fullest.
After all, current polls have the FPÖ in first place with 33 - 35%, followed by the SPÖ with 25 – 28% and the ÖVP with 18 – 22%, thus creating a high possibility that after such elections, the new government would be a coalition with the FPÖ as the major partner. Although this would not be the first time that the FPÖ is in a federal government, since it was already the minor coalition party from 1983 until 1986 and more infamously from 2000 until 2003, which resulted in EU sanctions and other political scandals, it would be the first time that the FPÖ constitutes the president and the major coalition partner.
The consequences of such a domination of national politics by right-wing nationalist parties can be seen in a few Central European countries such as Poland. Not only could it threaten the liberal democratic system in Austria as well as its well-functioning welfare system and good economy, but it would also mean another big loss of a reliable partner in Brussels and another threat to the European Union and a politically and economically strong Europe. It would constitute the first traditionally Western European country to fall under the influence of populism and nationalist rhetoric and politics and, as one of the wealthiest EU countries, could also pose a threat to the economy of the Eurozone and the EU as a whole, if the FPÖ continues flirting with the idea of an “Öxit” referendum. This could be the beginning of a wave of populist nationalist “take-overs” within the Eurozone, with the Dutch and French presidential elections coming soon, and with it the end of Europe as we know it.
However, if Hofer decided to use his power to such an extent, he would most likely antagonise lots of his moderate and centre-right voters, thus causing a great deal of damage for his own party. Instead, he could aim to act more moderate and statesmanlike while moving the FPÖ into a “cleaner picture”, all while maintaining nationalist and Eurosceptic rhetoric and opposing the government and damaging the image of the coalition government as often as possible until the next regular National Council election in 2018, when he could appoint Strache as the new Chancellor. Even if the FPÖ did not find any coalition partners to form a government, Strache and the FPÖ could continue using their often used image as a “victim”, discriminated by other parties and the mainstream media, to their own advantage and demand re-elections. All of that would certainly lead to great political and economic instability and an undermining of the democratic system.
In contrast to that scenario, a victory by Van der Bellen this Sunday would not change the status quo regarding the role of the president. More importantly, it would be a significant sign that the rise of populism and nationalism can be stopped and that there is still a future for a strong EU in an increasingly multipolar world as well as for the liberal democratic system. However, should Hofer win, he would be the first far-right head of state in Austria since the Second World War. Knowing what happened in the interwar period and what is happening in countries such as Poland today, we should remind ourselves to not take liberal democracy and freedom for granted, but something that has to be fought for and defended, together in Europe. TMM