Following the Brexit referendum in June and the election of Donald J. Trump in November, Austria’s presidential election on Sunday was closely watched as an indicator of whether right-wing populists would continue their 2016 winning streak. For now, at least, they haven’t.
On Sunday, Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of Austria’s Green Party, defeated Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party. This was a rerun of an election held in May whose results were annulled by the constitutional court after complaints of voting irregularities. This time, Mr. Van der Bellen won by a far wider margin — nearly seven percentage points, compared with less than one in May — despite opinion polls and many observers’ predicting his defeat.
Austria’s election demonstrates why it’s wrong to interpret the populist right around the world as part of a single and inevitable tide. The Freedom Party’s opponents tried to tie Mr. Hofer to Britain’s Brexit vote, suggesting that a victory for Mr. Hofer would lead to an Austrian referendum on leaving the European Union. But the Freedom Party distanced itself from such a policy, realizing that it did not enjoy majority support among Austrians. As for the American comparison, few people here viewed the soft-spoken, smiling Mr. Hofer as similar to the rowdy, crude Mr. Trump.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that similar forces are at play, and there are lessons to be learned from Austria. Mr. Hofer may have been defeated, but his platform of nationalism, Islamophobia, Euroskepticism and anti-elitism still won nearly half the vote in a high-turnout election. The Freedom Party’s ideological eclecticism — calling itself the “social homeland party” and appealing to workers, despite a neoliberal economic program — proved a strength rather than a weakness.
The influx of refugees to Austria over the past year and a half has also bolstered the far right’s popularity. Stories in tabloids and social media about the terrorist threat emanating from the refugees, the financial assistance they receive (real and imagined) and the alien nature of Islam have created a volatile atmosphere that has favored the Freedom Party.
But it was a fear of refugees, rather than actual exposure to them, that drove support for the Freedom Party: The election results showed no correlation between the localities where refugees had settled and votes for Mr. Hofer.
A sense of economic despair also played a crucial role. Unemployment now stands at 5.9 percent, low by European standards but a historic high for Austria. Many out-of-work Austrians blame the establishment political parties for this, just as those who fear they could be next to lose their jobs feel the elites have abandoned them.
It’s understandable that many voters are fed up with the mainstream parties. After sharing power for 22 of the past 29 years, the center-right People’s Party and the center-left Social Democrats have come to represent stagnation. Neither the new Social Democratic chancellor, Christian Kern, nor the young foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, a rising star among the People’s Party, have come up with a compelling alternative to the far right’s appeal.
Instead, each has moved his party closer toward a potential coalition with the Freedom Party, which continues to lead in polls for a parliamentary election. Mr. Kurz, after initially supporting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming approach to refugees in Germany, has since taken a hard line on closing Austria’s borders. Mr. Kern, for his part, was surprisingly gentle in a recent public debate with Hans-Christian Strache, the president of the Freedom Party.
Catering to the Freedom Party is likely to be a losing strategy for the centrists. One lesson from the presidential election is that presenting a real alternative is the way to defeat the far right. Mr. Van der Bellen provided a sharp contrast with Mr. Hofer. A retired university professor nearly 30 years Mr. Hofer’s senior, Mr. Van der Bellen represents an urban, open and cosmopolitan Austria, which came to assist refugees over the past year and a half in large numbers.
The Freedom Party sought to use this against him, portraying him as unpatriotic, a Communist and a Freemason, part of the Viennese elite. The party’s supporters mocked Mr. Van der Bellen’s age and suggested he might be ill. None of it worked. First, he could not be accused of any wrongdoing during his political career. Nor was he, as a Green, tainted by association with the ruling parties, whose two presidential candidates gained only just over 20 percent of the vote combined back in April’s first round of elections. And instead of pandering to the far right, Mr. Van der Bellen presented himself as a clear alternative.
Politicians across Europe, from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Marine Le Pen of France, had expressed support for Mr. Hofer. Seeing his defeat, are they now less sure of their own paths to power?
Their own successes so far mostly reflect the weaknesses of mainstream parties. It may require other political forces to present alternatives that keep the right-wing populists from power. Even so, the far right’s ideas have entered Europe’s mainstream.
Florian Bieber is a professor of Southeast European history and politics at the University of Graz, Austria.