The presidential election this past Sunday was going to change politics not only in Austria, but throughout the European Union. The stage for this was already set in April, when the mainstream parties of Austria were relegated to the third and fourth place status in the preliminary round election. Economic uncertainty and the deluge of migrants into the country, drove voters away from the traditional political parties. The country has become a bellwether for the direction in European politics.
Events in Austria have reverberated around Europe, creating rising uncertainty among long term investors that have counted on open borders with uniform business regulations across the continent. The free movement of people and goods in the European Union has been a hallmark for economic development in recent years. The migrant crisis and the ongoing economic stagnation threaten the whole edifice.
For the first time in Austrian post war history, a nationalist candidate was near to capturing the presidency of the country. Although the post is mostly ceremonial, a victory for the Freedom Party would of propelled Norbert Hofer a populist, as the head of government in Austria. He would have won on a platform of being anti-immigrant and against the European Union.
Although Mr. Hofer was ahead in preliminary electoral results at 51.9% of the vote, it was the 885,000 mail in ballots that tipped the balance in favor of the independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Many of these ballots were submitted by expatriates, who favor keeping Austria somewhat open to immigration and integrated within the European Union.
Although ultimately Mr. Hofer would fail to win the election, to come as close as he did, shows voter discontent with the center right (People’s Party) and center left (Social Democrats) parties that have alternated in power in the postwar era. They were ruling together in a coalition, when the Austrian electorate turned against them in April.
The Freedom Party was founded in the 1950’s, but only achieved enough popularity in 2000 to be part of a governing coalition until 2005. Part of the success of the movement at that time, was due to the skill of then party leader Jorge Haider.
The first round victory of Norbert Hofer in April, was the best performance for the Freedom Party since it was created. His message to disgruntled voters was that a mass influx of migrants, more free trade and ever closer integration with the rest of Europe, would be detrimental to the future of Austria.
Last year, Austria became a transit country for countless number of migrants, coming from other parts of the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. Although most of these refugees were attempting to make it to Germany, tens of thousands were remaining in Austria. The country received 90,000 asylum requests in 2015 alone. It is the second highest rate per capita in Europe.
At the beginning of 2016, Austria had a population of 8,651,462. To accept rising numbers of migrants escaping war and economic deprivation indefinitely, was becoming increasingly challenging. After initially welcoming refugees, the government this year capped the number that Austria will accept at 37,500. The country has already taken in more than 16,000 claims by the end of April for 2016.
Well over 1 million people, primarily from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria landed in Europe in 2015. This has become the worst migration crisis since the post war period. Former center-left Chancellor Werner Faymann was forced to reverse course over the winter, when the number of migrants inundating Austria became unmanageable. He felt compelled to close the border, to stem the tide of humanity entering the country from the south and east.
In April of this year, the Austrian parliament passed one of the toughest laws on refugees in Europe, following the first round victory of Norbert Hofer. The vote was 98 to 67, so it was clear the sentiment in the country had turned against accepting massive new number of migrants.
The government was also given the power to announce a state of emergency if needed, so most new refugees can now be stopped at the border. This would not only include economic migrants, but war refugees from Syria as well.
Although the new law has been attacked by opposition parties, religious leaders and civil rights groups it still remains in force. The charge that it violates the international human rights conventions, has not moved the Austrian government to modify its stance at this point.
The change in direction by the Social Democrat Chancellor Faymann, arrived too late to save his tenure in office. He resigned May 09th and was replaced by Christian Kern, who immediately announced he would continue to oppose the Freedom Party.
The election of Van der Bellen by a narrow margin of just 31,000 votes out of 4.64 million cast averted a possible government crisis, but it will only be temporary. The next general election is just a little more than two years away, in September 2018. That is if an election is not called even sooner.
Alexander Van der Bellen at 72, is a transitional politician. He was an economics professor and is of Russian ancestry. Although he claims to be independent, he was a former member of the Green Party. He will be the first Green politician to become head of state in Europe.
Although he is a European federalist, he vocally opposes the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership now being negotiated between the European Union and the United States.
As President of Austria, Mr. Van der Bellen will accredit ambassadors and sign international treaties. He will also be asked to swear in the new chancellor after the 2018 elections. He has vowed that he will not perform this function, if the Freedom Party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache wins the next election. The problem for Van der Bellen is that his nemesis, is currently ahead in the polls and will likely remain so.
The close election exposes the deep division in the Austrian electorate, as well as that throughout Europe. There is a growing voter demand for a re-balancing of national interests against those of the European Union. The rise of nationalist far right parties is rapidly spreading across Europe.
Although Austria has by far the largest percentage at 35.1%, the nations of Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland all have parties of a similar bent, that garner over 10% of the electorate.
The effect of more nationalists in various country legislatures and in the European Parliament provides new challenges to those individuals who favor continent wide institutions. The change in normally politically complacent Austria, has been remarkable and is likely to provide further impetus to similar movements elsewhere.