The shadow of the European Migrant Crisis continues to loom over the continent with its influence being felt in social circles, economic matters, and most prevalently, in domestic politics. The waves of refugees from Syria and North Africa, coupled with the rash of terror attacks in recent years is reshaping the political landscape of Europe. These events are the catalyst that has brought a number of right wing political parties in from the wilderness and placed them in political mainstreams of many European nations. Electorates from Warsaw to Central Europe are shifting right. Even Germany has not been immune from the shift. In last month’s election, Alternative for Germany, a right wing party, made significant gains, a precursor that a new political reality could very well be on the horizon for the central and eastern areas of the continent.
Now it’s Austria’s turn. On Sunday the conservative People’s Party staged a political upset in snap parliamentary elections. The party’s leader, 31 year old current foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, is expected to be chosen by Austria’s president to form a new government once the results are finalized. The People’s Party captured 31.4 percent of the votes and emerges from the elections as the strongest political force in Austria. The new government, when formed, will be a coalition. But it will be a far different coalition than any that Austria has seen in recent years. Conservatives will not be the junior partners this time around. The main partner of the People’s Party in a new coalition will likely be a populist party with similar political leanings like the Freedom Party. Back in May the Freedom Party almost captured the presidency. The results of that election allowed Brussels to breathe a sigh of relief and hope that Europe’s amour fou with populist, right wing politics was over once and for all.
Last month’s German elections, and today’s results in Austria show beyond a shadow of a doubt the relationship between European electorates and right wing political parties is anything but a fling. Not surprisingly, immigration was the main issue in Austria. While governments dally on effectively dealing with immigration problems, and the European Union sits on its hands hoping the immigration issue will disappear at some point soon, European voters are putting these leaders on notice. What happened in Austria today was no aberration and it will serve the EU well to keep that in mind.
The votes have been tallied and Alexander Van der Bellen appears to have narrowly defeated Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria’s presidential election. On Sunday, the race was declared ‘too close to call’and polls gave Hofer a slight lead. Today, once the postal votes were counted and factored in, Van der Bellen has come out on top. 12 percent of Austria’s 6.4 million voters cast their ballots as postal votes, so the number of votes that remained to be counted was significant.
The presidency in Austria is largely a ceremonial post, however, this election came to symbolize Austrians disaffection with the government’s handling of the migrant crisis. Austrian society is deeply divided and Van der Bellen will be tasked with helping to reunify the nation.
The election also served to highlight the growing trends of nationalism in European nations amid the migrant crisis. The inability of the EU to effectively deal with the crisis has infused many far-right political parties and enabled them to reach new political heights. While the Austrian presidential election is now over, the far-right will continue to be a force in Austrian politics. The same goes for the rest of Europe.
It’s obvious that the United States is not the only place where many voters are disenfranchised with establishment politicians and their inability to solve issues. Europeans are of a similar mind and that is becoming evident now.
Europe is watching closely as Austrians go to the polls in a presidential election run-off on Sunday. There is concern that the election could bring about the first far-right head of state in the European Union. Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer was virtually unknown on the international stage, and for that matter, not very well known in Austria before the migrant crisis exploded. In the first round of the presidential election Hofer won with 35 percent of the vote.
The first round result rattled observers across Europe. It signaled the end of the two-party system that has dominated Austrian politics since the end of World War II and indicated the widespread discontent and frustration that Austrians have regarding their government’s handling of the migration crisis. Austria has taken in 90,000 migrants last year at a time when unemployment numbers were starting to rise. Although the government eventually clamped down on immigration and asylum seekers, it was not enough to curb the rise of the far-right.
Hofer’s opponent is Alexander van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader who is running as an independent. Polls suggest the contest between the two will be close. The results of the first round came as a shock to the ruling Social Democrats and their coalition partner, the People’s Party. This will mark the first time since 1951 the head of state will not come from either party. Both parties are struggling to recover but neither will be able to reassert their influence until either the next round of parliamentary elections in 2018 or in the event of snap elections before that.
Following the election results tomorrow, I will post more on the race and the aftermath.