Shadow of Nazism looms over the Austrian election

If Norbert Hofer wins the Austrian presidential election on Sunday, it will mark the end of Vienna’s strategy for containing the far right.

For years, Austria’s two major parties forged a coalition to keep the far right out of power. Across Western Europe, whenever a far-right party or candidate threatened to break the traditional political balance of power, more mainstream political parties joined together to keep them in check. This time, that may not be enough

Worse yet, all the years of keeping the far right on the margins of national politics may only have succeeded in helping it grow stronger.

Austria’s new trouble started on April 24, when Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, won the first round of the presidential election with 35 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Austrian electorate unexpectedly rejected the candidates supported by the two major parties, the Austrian People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party.

That leaves Sunday’s run-off between Hofer and the Green Party’s Alexander van der Bellen, a 72-year-old pro-European economics professor. Van der Bellen, however, has not received the massive rallying of mainstream support usually seen in other countries. In France in 2002, for example, when far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the presidential run-off, he was crushed. Jacques Chirac received 82 percent of the vote, as all other parties threw their support behind him. A recent poll, however, puts Hofer ahead of Van der Bellen, 53 percent to 47 percent.

Austrian Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer looks on during a presentation of his campaign in Vienna, March 14, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader
Austrian Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer looks on during a presentation of his campaign in Vienna, March 14, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

One problem is that the Social Democrats and the People’s Party have been coalition partners for so long they are not regarded as real alternatives to each other. The government’s initial decision to allow migrants to cross Austrian borders last year, which resulted in 100,000 applying for asylum in a country of 8.5 million, has proven deeply polarizing. The Freedom Party capitalized on this by attacking Vienna’s migration policy and the political status quo.

Like the Republican front-runner Donald Trump in the United States, Hofer regularly presents himself as the underdog fighting against the system – though he is ahead in the polls He is also similar to Trump in his ability to shape the narrative. In one television debate, for example, Hofer insisted that vandalization of his election posters was part of a coordinated attack on his campaign — and tried to hold Van der Bellen personally responsible.

The discussion came to a head when Van der Bellen asked Hofer which politicians were supporting him across the European Union — suggesting it was only political extremists such as French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders. Hofer still took the point. “I don’t need anyone from Europe,” he responded. “I need the Austrians.”

At his core, Hofer is a nationalist, antiestablishment candidate. In Austria, that means anti-Europe, anti-migrant and anti-political status quo. That status quo is the coalition that has run Austria since it regained its sovereignty after World War Two. This cooperation was intended to prevent the sort of internal conflict that nearly caused a civil war in Austria between the world wars.

The Freedom Party supports breaking the two-party dominance and Vienna’s relationship with the European Union in order to expand its own power. Its willingness to break with established tradition is what worries many critics about Hofer as president. The Austrian presidency is traditionally a figurehead. But Hofer has threatened to use the office’s powers to dissolve the government if it crosses red lines on issues like migration.

Hofer is part of a larger wave of populist, anti-immigrant, anti-globalization pushback. He is feeding off the taboos of political correctness. He tells voters that the sins of the past don’t matter; that the establishment and its faults can be swept away; and that problems will be solved once the populists get into power.

That sentiment has been exploited by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, as well as the new right-wing governments in Poland and Slovakia. It is the same wave driving Britain’s UK Independence Party and the nation’s impending referendum on withdrawal from the European Union. It is working for Trump, too.

In Western Europe, however, the taboo of the Nazi period has long kept the far right successfully in check. In 2000, when the centrist Austrian People’s Party formed a coalition with the Austrian Freedom Party, then led by the nationalist Jörg Haider, the outrage from Europe was palpable. Other EU members imposed sanctions on the country. But with anti-immigrant parties now controlling several European nations, any similar reaction is unlikely today.

This situation is particularly complicated in Austria, however, because it is where this wave of right-wing sentiment meets the shadow of Nazism.

Denazification in Austria never went as far as it did in Germany. During the social upheavals of 1968, younger Germans confronted their parents about what they did during the war.

Austria only began fully dealing with its Nazi legacy with the election of President Kurt Waldheim in 1986. Waldheim had lied about his own past when he served as United Nations secretary-general from 1972 to 1981. During World War Two, Waldheim served in German military units that executed thousands of Yugoslav partisans and civilians, and deported thousands of Greek Jews to death camps. The revelations ignited a nationwide conversation about Austria’s Nazi legacy.

Now, Austria risks entering a new era of ahistoricism. The structures that had previously held the far right in check continue to break down, because fewer people regard political extremists as the most serious threat to their society.

The cost of that breakdown is a lesson Austria should have learned from its own history. But it is a lesson also being forgotten far beyond its borders.

Ian Bateson is an independent correspondent. He has written for Reuters, the New York Times and the Guardian among others.

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