Presidential candidates Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (R) and Alexander Van der Bellen (L) who is supported by the Greens party in Vienna, Austria, May 22, 2016.
Heinz-Peter Bader / Reuters

On May 23, Norbert Hofer, a candidate from Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, lost the presidential election by only 31,000 votes. His strong showing surprised observers who believed that a prosperous free-market democracy such as Austria could never come so close to electing a far-right head of state. It would have been the first far-right head of state elected in Europe since World War II.

Although Alexander Van der Bellen, the 72-year-old former chief of the left-leaning Green Party, triumphed in the end, it was striking that he, like Hofer, was something of a protest candidate. He, too, strongly repudiated Austria’s centrist ruling parties, which have shared power for six decades, by campaigning against the entrenched system of patronage which he claimed had corrupted Austrian democracy over the years.

Van der Bellen and Hofer’s tactic worked well. In the first round of elections, held on April 24, candidates of the mainstream parties, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, won only 22 percent of the vote. That led to a tight runoff between the various far-right and Green candidates, with many moderate Austrians rallying around Van der Bellen to block the Freedom Party’s path to the presidential palace.

The rise of the Freedom Party fits, in some ways, the broader trend of growing right-wing populism in Europe, which has been largely fueled by the influx of refugees into the continent. But the specific origins, and at times the messages, of these right-wing parties are quite different. Poland’s Law and Justice Party, for example, emerged in the early 2000s, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, during an initial spurt of right-wing nationalism in central Europe that also strengthened Viktor Orban’s Fidesz movement in Hungary during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Alternative for Germany, meanwhile, emerged in recent years as an anti-euro, anti-immigrant party. And the Danish People’s Party and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands proclaim that unfettered immigration will destroy their generous welfare states. More extreme groups that promulgate an openly racist message include Hungary’s Jobbik party and Greece’s Golden Dawn movement.

Austria’s Freedom Party might be most similar to France’s National Front, in that it has sought in recent years to break the dominance of mainstream ruling parties by making its agenda more appealing to moderate voters. In its heyday, after the country regained its sovereignty in 1955, the Freedom Party lingered on the fringes of Austrian politics. The former Nazi officers who founded the party in 1956 espoused the kind of racist, pan-German ideology that Austria native Adolf Hitler championed. In the late 1990s, under its telegenic leader Jörg Haider, the party dropped its anti-Semitic themes, attacked the mainstream parties for corruption, picked up more support, and eventually found its way into coalition governments with both of the major parties. In 2001, its entry into the federal ruling coalition with Austria’s Christian Democrats headed by Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel led to a temporary boycott by other EU governments who objected to seeing a far-right party brought into government.

What the recent Austrian presidential election has shown is that the mainstream political parties desperately need to regain their credibility. This involves taking the initiative to develop an alternative set of policies that respond to issues such as immigration and globalization rather than enacting reactionary policies and echoing the xenophobic fears of right-wing groups.

After Haider’s death in a car crash in 2008, the Freedom Party further shifted its focus toward preserving Austria’s conservative Catholic values and protecting its shared affluence and business connections with the neighboring German region of Bavaria—for example, by advocating to help farmers and small businesses—in order to shore up support among their voter base in rural areas. It also began to downplay its anti-Semitic origins and responded to public alarm about Muslim immigrants by pandering to Islamophobic instincts. Hofer repeatedly stated during his presidential campaign that Europe needed to repel the “Muslim invasion” because the recent influx of Syrian refugees would overwhelm Austria’s social structure.

Such statements proved popular, given public disapproval of the way Social Democratic Chancellor Werner Faymann and his Christian Democratic ruling partners responded to the refugee crisis by joining German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her call to receive tens of thousands of desperate Syrians pouring into Europe from Turkey. After more than one million refugees traveled through the country in 2015, the majority of whom were on their way to Germany or the Nordic countries, public anxiety grew over when the surge would finally end. The Freedom Party received a sharp boost of support in the polls, and in a swift reversal, the mainstream parties imposed strict immigration restrictions to block the arrival of new immigrants.

But the center parties’ vacillating approach to the refugee crisis clearly damaged trust with voters. After the appalling result of the first-round presidential election, Faymann declared the outcome as a clear vote of no confidence and tendered his resignation. Even though his social Democratic successor has vowed to carry on with the same grand coalition that has been in power since 2007, it is clear that the Austrian public has become disenchanted. And it isn’t only the refugee crisis that is under scrutiny, but also the tradition of doling out state jobs to supporters, known as Proporz. It is a murky Austrian system of political patronage that allowed the mainstream parties to dole out comfortable government jobs to their supporters, which the public has come to see as a form of entrenched corruption.

The public has also become increasingly disenchanted with the failure of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats to address pressing immigration and energy issues and develop new and inspirational visions for the country’s future. But Austria’s mainstream ruling parties are not the only ones facing an identity crisis. The convergence of Europe’s major political groupings, mainly the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats, has left the public without any alternatives save for the far right and far left.

The Austrian general election was a near step to the extreme right, September 29, 2013.
Dominic Ebenbichler / Reuters

In Germany, the ruling Christian Democrats under Chancellor Angela Merkel are nearly indistinguishable from the Social Democrats, at least to voters. The center right now embraces many of the same positions associated with the center left: gender equality, expanded welfare benefits, and worker protections. In the same vein, the Social Democrats have strived to reach beyond their working-class base by adopting more market-friendly positions associated with the center-right. The absence of real political debate, even as citizens themselves are divided over immigration, security in the face of a more aggressive Russia, and modernizing the economy, has opened the door to a surge in public support for protest parties on the right and left.

Right-wing groups across the continent have also exploited fears about the impact of globalization, particularly in wealthy European countries endowed with generous social welfare programs. The most effective message of the Freedom Party, in terms of capturing voters who were once loyal supporters of the centrist ruling groups, has been to warn that an influx of refugees would jeopardize the blessings of the welfare state—universal health care, child support, and free education for all.

The irony is that many government studies show a steady flow of immigrants into many western European countries, such as Austria and Germany, will be necessary to help sustain those very programs and the extraordinarily high living standards that their citizens enjoy today. Germany’s Interior Ministry has concluded that the country will require integrating more than 400,000 immigrants a year over the next two decades to compensate for low birth rates and help sustain generous pension and health care programs. More than three decades of low birth rates have left those countries with a shrinking base of working-age adults who will have to pay ever higher taxes to subsidize the pensions and health care needs of a large aging population. And in spite of emotional claims by right-wing groups that refugees will bleed the welfare state dry, government studies have shown that, in fact, the immigrant populations in Austria and Germany pay more in income and other taxes than they extract in social benefits, contrary to the public perception.

What the recent Austrian presidential election has shown is that the mainstream political parties desperately need to regain their credibility. This involves taking the initiative to develop an alternative set of policies that respond to issues such as immigration and globalization rather than enacting reactionary policies and echoing the xenophobic fears of right-wing groups. Most importantly, it is urgent that the mainstream parties in Austria and Germany find a way to educate the public on the realities of demographic decline. They must drive home the message that their citizens’ future well-being will depend on absorbing higher numbers of immigrants rather than turning them away.

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  • WILLIAM DROZDIAK is Non-Resident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and Senior Adviser for Europe and Eurasia with McLarty Associates. His forthcoming book Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West will be published next year by W. W. Norton.
  • More By William Drozdiak