Here we go again. My home country of Austria, a western liberal democracy – I thought – indeed seems unable to hold orderly elections. While my worries about our democratic system dominated at first, the issue by now turned into little more than a bad joke for me. And think about it: the fact that our whole electoral system is breaking down all because of non-sticking glue is pretty hilarious, isn’t it?
So Austria is right now in its sixth month of presidential elections with no end in sight. We had the first round in April and the run-off in May, which was then ruled invalid by the country’s constitutional court and had to be repeated. Now, the new date in October was postponed to December, because the glue on postal votes did not stick. Pure tragicomedy, really.
What is behind these defects?
First of all, this is devastating for Austria’s reputation abroad. Even if Austrian politicians constantly tried to play this down in recent months, I personally cannot think of a single occasion, when a presidential election had to be repeated in any other developed country. So there is really no point playing it down: this is an unparalleled embarrassment! The fact that even the new date did not hold only exacerbates this fact.
While this is all truly embarrassing and – at least for Austrian citizens – also a bit annoying, there is a much more significant problem involved though. The events in Austria just seem to confirm so many of the crazy conspiracy theories out there so neatly.
Conspiracy theorists rejoice
Conspiracy theorists and, more importantly, the right-wing populists that have started to cater their needs all around the world, have long claimed that elections are rigged and that the ordinary people are being deceived by the government. While of course no sane person could claim that the issues in Austria can be attributed to the government – at least not in a deceitful manner – all this clearly strengthens the populists’ argument.
After all, now it is very easy for them to claim they have been right all along. Voting is indeed a fraud, elections are indeed pre-arranged and the media is indeed lying to the people. And even worse than confirming the ill-conceived fears of conspiracy theorists, the populists of the FPÖ can now even claim that it was them to have finally uncovered this scandal and given the power back to the “decent people”. Yeah… great.
This is more than just bad PR
While in reality, the faux-pas around the Austrian presidential elections is of course just that, a faux-pas and a PR-disaster, the state of society in most western countries turns it into something much more significant.
The unfortunate marriage between right-wing populism and conspiracy theorists has opened up the gap between reality and individual perception all around the world. This has reached the point where large parts of the population actually believe, the whole system – the government, the press and everything – is one big conspiracy and they are the chosen ones, the ones that realise.
Even if this tin foil hat brigade is still just a small part of the right-wing electorate, it does seem increasingly influential. Under these circumstances, the last thing we need is a mistake like that in Austria. It might not be much more than bad PR to us but I’m damn sure future elections will once more show that it is much more to many, many others.