Austria's Populist Puzzle

Why One of Europe's Most Stable States Hosts a Thriving Radical Right

A worker passes presidential election campaign posters for Norbert Hofer and Alexander Van der Bellen in Vienna, September 2016.  Heinz-Peter Bader / REUTERS

For many international observers, Austria’s flirtation with right-wing populism is something of a puzzle. Austria is one of the European Union's most prosperous countries and has long been a model of political and social stability. It has an efficient government, excellent public infrastructure, and generally low unemployment and crime rates. And although Austrians could once be faulted for their unwillingness to confront their nation’s culpability for Nazism and the Holocaust, that too has changed in recent years, as public awareness of the country’s role in both of those tragedies has deepened.

Nevertheless, over the past three decades, radical right-wing populism has been more electorally successful in Austria than perhaps anywhere else in western Europe. On December 4, in Austria’s presidential election, voters delivered a clear victory to Alexander Van der Bellen, the former head of the left-wing Greens. Yet Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing populist Austrian Freedom Party, won some 46 percent of the vote, not only setting a new record for his party but also securing more support than any other western European right-wing populist group has ever achieved in a national election.

Hofer’s defeat seemed to break a winning streak for populist and antiestablishment forces that has roiled the West over the past year. But if Austria’s mainstream parties want to keep the Freedom Party from another strong showing in the next parliamentary election, they need to overcome the deadlock that has prevented them from introducing reforms so that they can stimulate the economy, combat unemployment, and get a handle on Austria's refugee and immigration policy.


Austria is governed by a parliamentary coalition comprising the center-left Social Democrats and the center-conservative People’s Party. These two parties and their immediate predecessors founded the Austrian Republic in 1918, presided over its reconstitution after World War II, and have ruled ever since, mostly through grand coalitions.

In recent decades, the combined vote share of the Social Democrats and People’s

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