The Freedom Party, a far-right Austrian political party founded in 1956 by disgruntled former Nazis, just came within 30,000 votes of securing the Austrian presidency. After 24 hours of tallying votes, Austrian authorities announced Monday that the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer had lost to the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old economics professor.
Hofer officially announced his defeat on his Facebook page:
"Of course I am sad today. I would so gladly have taken care of our wonderful country for you as president. The effort for this campaign is not lost, but an investment in the future.”
Voter participation was incredibly high on Sunday as Austrians cast their votes for their next president. The choices on the ballot were a reflection of the country’s highly polarized political atmosphere: Voters were forced to choose between a far-right populist party and a left-leaning party.
The Green Party narrowly defeated their far-right rivals, taking the presidency with a 0.6% margin of victory. Ultimately, Hofer walked away with 49.7 % of the vote; Van der Bellen won 50.3% of the vote. “Polling experts said Mr. Van der Bellen had won the election with support from city dwellers — particularly in Vienna, which voted 61 percent for him — women and the highly educated,” notes The New York Times.
European far-right politics has been spreading across the continent like wildfire, likely in response to the apparent threat of shifting demographics and globalization. Immigration is a major cornerstone of many far-right populist parties in Europe.
And yet, the European far-right platform is a far cry from the tenets of mainstream American conservatism. “[R]eflecting their working-class constituencies, European right-wing parties are often more anti-business, anti-trade and pro-social-welfare than American Democrats, let alone American Republicans,” writes Dan McLaughlin in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.
Europe’s far-right populists, including France’s Marie Le Pen and Austria’s Hofer, aren’t just run-of-the-mill anti-establishment figures, but hyper-nationalists stoking the fires of economic protectionism and domestic insulation. The European far-right’s full-blown hostility to migrants of all stripes has been part and parcel of their populist appeal for decades. After years of operating on the fringe, these parties are now knocking on the door of power.
Indeed, Hofer's illiberal Freedom Party is a vestige of Europe's disturbing history of authoritarianism. "Austria’s Freedom Party dates back to the early postwar years when a group that included many former Nazis founded a pro-German, extreme-right party that paid lip service to liberalism," reports Foreign Policy. The party's pro-Nazi leadership called for the country to once again be a part of Greater Germany as it had been under Hitler's rule.
Though Hofer’s narrow loss “averted the prospect of the first right-wing populist head of state in post-Nazi Europe taking office in a democratic election,” explains The Times, how close he came to winning highlights the polarization of the country "and how thoroughly the centrist elites who have run the country since 1945 have fallen from public grace.”
In the last few months alone, Hungary and Poland have succumbed to the temptations of far-right populism, embracing an ominously familiar brand of ethno-nationalism not seen since the end of the Second World War. Austria, just nearly, suffered the same fate. As the European Union struggles to retain some semblance of cohesion, far-right populist parties are prematurely ringing the death knell for the post-war European order. Riding the anti-immigrant wave and sowing social division, Europe’s far-right is precariously close to power.
In his victory speech, Van der Bellen acknowledged the profound schisms fracturing his country and by extension, Europe as a whole. “We have quite clearly got a lot of work to do,” stated Van der Bellen. “Obviously, people do not feel sufficiently seen or heard, or both.”
Image (AP): Visitors hold flags including a black one reading "Za Dom Spremni" or "For Homeland Ready", a chant used by pro-nazis during WWII, attend a rally in Bleiburg, Austria, Saturday, May 14, 2016. Thousands of far-right supporters have gathered on a field in southern Austria to commemorate the massacre of Croatian pro-Nazis by victorious communists at the end of World War II.