Sunday will see the culmination of one of the longest, toughest — and flat-out weirdest — elections ever in Austria. Voters will choose between two candidates: Alexander Van der Bellen, the former leader of the small Green Party, and Norbert Hofer, a key figure in the right-wing Freedom Party.
The result will have a symbolic importance far beyond Austria. Is another country about to join the rise of nationalist and far-right populists elsewhere in Europe, and mimic the unexpected success of President-elect Donald J. Trump in the United States?
The pairing of finalists in this contest is odd enough: Both their parties were usually on the fringes of the traditional political establishment, which for decades was dominated by the center-left Social Democrats on one side and the center-right Austrian People’s Party on the other. Back in April, though, the voters dealt a humiliation to those two parties’ candidates in the first round of voting, consigning them to fourth and fifth places.
What happened next was a sort of comedy-thriller. By the time of the decisive second-round runoff in May, the country was deeply rived. The liberal, leftish, cosmopolitan, modern and urban part of the electorate coalesced behind the Green candidate, while his right-wing populist rival picked up the votes of all those who are resentful of elites or simply wanted to knock the Green candidate off his perch for being too radical (on grounds that being a Green is still regarded as “radical”). Imagine Americans being offered the choice between Donald Trump and, say, Ralph Nader; inevitably, a portion of the voters will go for the one they dislike less.
With late gains, Mr. Van der Bellen won the second round — by the shortest of short heads. But the defeated right and its candidate brought a complaint before the Constitutional Court, and because of the mishandling of absentee ballots, the curious legal verdict was that the entire election should be held again. The date initially set then had to be canceled because the envelopes for the ballots were literally falling apart (the gum didn’t stick).
And so the two candidates have now been dragging themselves through an almost yearlong campaign. The significance of the election outweighs the authority of the office: Unlike the presidents of the United States and France, the president of Austria is no powerful executive figure. His duties are largely ceremonial, but for a few important constitutional powers — for instance, after general elections, he can influence the formation of a government, and in exceptional situations, he may move to dismiss a government.
So will Mr. Hofer — the Austrian Trump, if you will — get a majority and send fresh shock waves through a rattled Continent?
The party Mr. Hofer represents, the Freedom Party, claims to speak on behalf of “normal people” against the “remote establishment.” For several months now, it has been ahead in the polls — and has every chance of coming out ahead in the next parliamentary elections, which will very likely be called soon (but which must take place before the end of 2018).
With Mr. Hofer as president, the Freedom Party could be well placed after the next parliamentary election to form a government with its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, as chancellor. The country would then find itself in the grip of a new type of right-wing party — at a time when its neighbor Hungary is governed by the authoritarian Viktor Orban and when the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen has a good chance of winning the French presidency in 2017. Against such a background, the duel between Mr. Van der Bellen and Mr. Hofer acquires a Pan-European significance.
What distinguishes Austria’s Freedom Party from other right-wing populist outfits in Europe is that it has worked for decades to hone its propaganda message. Initially founded as a postwar refuge for former Nazis, the party gradually transformed into a more respectable advocate of center-right economic liberalism. Then, in the 1980s, Jörg Haider reinvented it as a crusading populist party with a strong anti-immigration platform. Thanks to this new momentum, the party entered government in 2000 as the junior partner in a conservative coalition.
The Freedom Party today is Euroskeptic, anti-elite, anti-foreigner, anti-Islam and anti-globalization. But above all, it is anti-system — the established duopoly of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party, who, in the eyes of many Austrians, run a cozy cartel. It’s classic us-against-them stuff.
All this makes the Freedom Party a potential role model for the new European right.
Austrians are wondering whether the American election will play in Mr. Hofer’s favor. On one hand, the Freedom Party feels emboldened by Mr. Trump’s success; on the other, the Trump effect has finally woken up the progressive camp, motivating tens of thousands of volunteers to work for Mr. Van der Bellen in a remarkable grass-roots campaign.
There’s every chance that Austria’s liberal-left may squeak through in Sunday’s vote. But that only highlights the scale of the problem we have long faced: Against the background of rising right-wing populism, winning elections is no longer about articulating any positive vision or program, but has become a desperate, last-ditch effort to stave off the worst.
Christian Kern, the Social Democrats’ energetic new leader and the chancellor since May, is now trying to make a living left-of-center party out of his moribund organization. In the long run, this is the only way of reversing the prevailing alienation of many Austrians from politics and winning back voters from the Freedom Party.
With half the electorate ready to vote for a candidate of the extreme right, however, this will be no easy feat.
Robert Misik is a journalist and author. This essay was translated by Michael Hofmann from the German.