Austrians were called to the polling stations on Sunday for a ballot of crucial importance. Had the extreme right candidate Norbert Hofer (FPO) beaten his opponent in the second round of the Presidential elections, Austria would have been the first EU member country with an openly xenophobic head of state. A victory for the FPO candidate - a party founded by neo-nazis and whose program is incompatible with the European Union values and the Amsterdam Treaty - would have caused yet another crisis in an already ailing regional integration process.
Following the Brexit vote, a wave of nationalistic revisionist convictions has gained momentum throughout the continent and Norbert Hofer already saw himself as the champion of this regressive movement. The Austrian population handed him a clear defeat, the second one in six months after a first election was invalidated over claims of mishandling of votes from the Austrian diaspora abroad.
Having rejected the candidates from both mainstream parties in the first round - the social democratic SPO and the conservative OVP - Austrians had to choose between two outsiders that everything opposed. Standing in front of a young and charismatic Norbert Hofer was a stern academic of 72 years old, the leader of the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen.
On the one hand, Hofer campaigned vehemently for an “Öxit”, with Austria leaving the EU and supporting a rapprochement between Russia and the United States while implementing a xenophobic and racist political platform. As most European extreme right politicians, Hofer played on the citizens’ fear towards the future in the midst of a refugee crisis that nourishes a perceived loss of sovereignty. He multiplied populistic promises regarding welfare state, purchasing power and employment without ever explaining how he would finance any of them.
Van der Bellen on the other hand reaffirmed his attachment to the European Union, insisting on humanistic values. As he did throughout his tenure at the University of Vienna, he lectured on the importance for Austria to maintain a strong openness towards other countries. With 40 percent of the national GDP depending on exports, the country would have strongly suffered from a possible exit from the European Union’s single market.
The two candidates represented not only two different political perspectives for the future of Austria but also two drastically opposed understanding of the role of the politics itself. Van der Bellen, the scholar, believes in the need to confront national history with a critical mindset in order to prevent repeating historical errors. In regards to the refugees, he underlined the need to reaffirm the values of human and minority rights against the rise of nationalism. As for the European project, Van der Bellen defends a deepening of integration based on a secular and liberal support to democracy.
Hofer, the smiling orator mocked his opponent as a member of a high flying intelligentsia as opposed to the support of the commoners he claimed to have. In line with the leaders of UKIP, the French National Front or populist politicians in Poland or Hungary, Hofer called for the end of a liberal union and the assertive reintroduction of an authoritarian, patriotic and interventionist regime in Austria. His political project was to impose from the top the short sighted and uneducated opinions of the masses as opposed to the expertise of an educated class he despised.
While Van der Bellen called for a secular and open society, Hofer defended a traditional religious and xenophobic order summarized by the slogan on his campaign posters “So wahr mir Gott helfe!” (with the help of God), which negated the central tenet of the European construction: the establishment of a civic order above religious, racial and nationalistic differences.
The rhetoric used in Vienna by the FPO leader was no different from the discourses heard within extreme rights meetings in Budapest, Warsaw, Paris or London, exploiting the egotism, fear and identity crisis of our modern societies. While in Eastern Europe, the lack of maturity of national polities has facilitated the brutal swing from communism to nationalism after a short parenthesis of liberal aspiration, Western European countries have fortunately yet to succumb to the nationalistic plague. The extreme right is still a minority force in Germany while Le Pen cannot break the glass ceiling of 30 percent in national elections and Mediterranean and Benelux countries resist despite the Brexit setback.
Vienna was in all aspect a battleground between two visions of the future of Europe. The elections in Austria might have marked the first significant defeat for a transnational movement of xenophobic propaganda financed and supported by Moscow, from bank loans to the French National Front to public marks of support from Putin to Victor Orban. Its objective is to unravel decades of a liberal European construction that protected the continent from wars.
Instead of a charismatic populistic and young speaker, the Austrians chose an austere green party leader who devoted his life to economics and sustainable growth. It could be a valuable example to follow for the rest of the continent and a first significant defeat to the surge of xenophobia and inward looking regressive policies.