Today, we inevitably have to talk about the presidential elections in Austria one last time. After more or less continuous campaigning for the last ten or so months, two rounds of elections, one embarrassing annulment and one even more embarrassing postponement, Austria’s new president might finally be chosen today. We will find out tomorrow, whether we have elected the first far-right president in Europe since 1945 or dodged the bullet by a millimetre. Either way, this election will send a clear message.
I have a bad feeling about this
I like to think of myself as an optimist. After the first round of elections, when Alexander Van der Bellen was trailing behind Norbert Hofer by almost 14%, I was certain he could turn it around and was actually quite surprised when he “only” won by 30,000 or so votes in the end.
Back in May, I still had the feeling that when worse comes to worst, centre-left and centre-right voters would come together to prevent a far-right president. This is what happened very impressively in the last regional elections in France and it seemed to make sense to me as a logic that also applies to Austria. In short, I had a firm belief that after all, reasonable, non-radical status-quo voters are a majority and a 50% plus vote for radical change is unlikely.
Since then, this belief took one hit after the other. First of course, there was Brexit. Also there, I was almost 100% certain that people in the UK would not take chances and vote for such radical change. I was certain they would prefer stability over uncertainty but as it turned out, I was very, very wrong about this. Like many others, it seems I greatly underestimated the sense of frustration and blatant anger, simmering in Western societies like the UK’s, that led people to vote against their own best interest out of an overpowering sense of powerlessness.
This trend was of course taken to a new peak with the US Presidential elections and the circumstances were quite similar: rural, white working class people voting for radical change in their masses and against their best interest.
These developments made me wonder: why should Austria be any different? Yes, sure, last time around people voted for the reasonable candidate. But that was by a 0.2% margin. Compared to that, Brexit seems like a landslide! Additionally, Austria has always been a European forerunner when it comes to right-wing populism. Already in 1999, Norbert Hofer’s FPÖ won almost 27% in parliamentary elections and today, the party is leading all national polls and were there elections now, it would probably win with up to 35% of the vote.
Prepare for the angry 48%… or 49.8
All in all, it would be remarkable if Austria of all places would withstand the populist tide today. I truly hope it will but my sense of optimism has taken a huge blow over the last months.
In any outcome, we will probably see the 48%, or the 49.8% take the streets tomorrow. Any President, to almost half of Austrians wouldn’t be “their President” and that is truly no positive outlook.