Wodak attributes Hofer’s never-anticipated success in the first round of presidential voting to the 90,000 migrants who have been seeking asylum in Austria since last summer. What the Freedom Party has long derided as their country’s “welcoming culture” has led to its current immigration crisis and its slow rise in unemployment, Hofer supporters charge. Hofer’s slogan – “Putting Austria First” — clearly resonated with voters. And Hofer—an engineer, 41 years old, and a father of four — is less Jorg Haider than he is Donald Trump.
By John Gizzi | May 17, 2016
Barring any dramatic surprise and resultant upheaval, Austrian voters will go to the polls Sunday and most probably elect controversial Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer as their new president.
Running as a political outsider and a foe of both the European Union and the mass immigration that his country must now face, Hofer stunned observers in and out of Austria by drawing 36 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting April 24. Equally as stunning was that nominees of the two major parties who have governed Austria each managed 11 per cent of the vote and trailed Green Party nominee Alexander Van der Bellen in the runoff May 24.
In the contest likened by one wag to “Donald Trump versus Bernie Sanders,” just about every poll gives a comfortable lead for the primarily ceremonial office to the Freedom Party’s Hofer, although some polls suggest that the margin is narrowing between the two candidates.
Freedom Party! For seasoned scholars of European politics, it’s chilling to simply hear the name of the sixty-year old party whose name and agenda invokes a hard line on immigration and nationalism.
Flaccid for its first three years of life, the Freedom Party began to grow and attract international attention in 1986 under the leadership of the magnetic Jorg Haider. Denounced by opponents as “Hitler’s grandson” for his controversial revisionist statements regarding the Nazi regime (under which Austria and Germany were one from 1938-45) and vows to “protect Austrian culture and national identity,” Haider nonetheless led the Freedom Party to a record 26.9 percent of the vote in the 1999 national elections.
In becoming the second-largest party in Austria and securing Cabinet ministries from 2000-2006, the Freedom Party seemed destined to be the first party of its kind to assume power in a European country since 1945. But it split in two in 2005, with Haider leading another party until his death in an automobile accident three years later.
The ongoing controversy that surrounded the Freedom Party over brass-knuckled rhetoric—notably that of party leader H.C. Strache about Muslims—resulted in a downturn in public support. In the last presidential election in 2010, in spite of signing a document condemning National Socialism, Freedom Party candidate Barbara Rosenkranz managed only 15.2 per cent of the vote.
“Well, times have changed and we are experiencing new challenges now,” Dr. Ruth Wodak, Distinguished Professor in Discourse Studies at Lancaster University (UK) and author of The Politics of Fear about contemporary European right of center populism.
Wodak attributes Hofer’s never-anticipated success in the first round of presidential voting to the 90,000 migrants who have been seeking asylum in Austria since last summer. What the Freedom Party has long derided as their country’s “welcoming culture” has led to its current immigration crisis and its slow rise in unemployment, Hofer supporters charge. Hofer’s slogan – “Putting Austria First” — clearly resonated with voters. Yet, voters are extremely dissatisfied with the current government and the so-called establishment; many are frightened of losing out in the face of the still on-going financial and other crises.
And Hofer—an engineer, 41 years old, and a father of four — is less Jorg Haider than he is Donald Trump.
As Dr. Wodak put it, “He comes across as a ‘soft version’ of the extreme [populist].There is no explicit Holocaust denial or other provocations. And there was a very bad performance of the governing coalition last year. Eighty percent of the people are dissatisfied with the government.”
It is this last factor — widespread voter dissatisfaction with the status quo — in which outsiders Hofer and Trump have the most in common.
“It derives from the almost-total control that two parties, the Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party, exercised since the end of the Second World War,” wrote the Financial Times Tony Barber, “For decades, they operated a system known as Proporz, under which jobs and patronage at all levels of the state were divvied up in proportion to the parties electoral support.”
(During an interview with this reporter in December 1994, then Freedom Party boss Haider said that an offspring of this “insider politics” was that there was one national television network and it was in the hands of allies of the two major parties. As a result, he insisted, “Americans and other people around the world get such a negative impression of me.” Haider vowed that if he ever came to power, he would apply U.S.-style anti-trust regulations to the network and “break it up into several outlets’).
In branding this system “a recipe for corruption and nepotism,” Barber concluded that the votes for the two major parties dropped from 79 percent in 2002 to just over 50 percent to barely 22 percent last month.
The presidential runoff comes barely a week after Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann was forced to resign and fellow Social Democrat and Railway Director and CEO Christian Kern was put forward as his successor. Even if Kern is accepted by the People’s Party, his future is uncertain. Hofer has made clear he will use the power of the presidency to call for new elections and, presumably, a greater number of Freedom Party members of Parliament who will back his agenda.
As Austria is poised to enter a period of uncertainty, one thing is certain: many other countries throughout the world will surely be paying more attention to Austria than they have in recent years.