Why Austrians Nearly Elected a Far Right Candidate as President
The political and democratic crisis in Austria coupled with the economic conditions nearly handed the presidency to the far right, says economist Walter Baier
SHARMINI PERIES, PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
On Sunday, Austrians narrowly, meaning by 0.6 percent, elected Alexander Van der Bellen as Austria’s new president, defeating the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer of the FPO party. Van der Bellen ran as an independent but is a former president of the country’s Green Party. This was the first time in post-war Austria that neither of the leading candidates running for president came from one of the two long dominant parties, the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats. All major parties endorsed Van der Bellen in order to prevent the election of Norbert Hofer. The FBO is notoriously anti-immigrant, homophobic, and anti-EU.
On to discuss these developments is Walter Baier. He is an economist in Vienna and was national chairperson of the Communist Party of Austria, the KPO, and he did that from 1994 to 2006. He was an editor of the Austrian weekly Volksstimme, and has been a coordinator of the Network to Transform Europe. Thank you so much for joining us Walter.
BAIER: Hi Sharmini, nice to be with you.
PERIES: First of all, Walter, how did Austrians end up choosing between a far-right candidate and a left, Green candidate.
BAIER: Well, as you mentioned, first of all, it reveals the deep crisis of the political system which traditionally has been represented by the social Democratic party and the People’s Party, and this political crisis, itself, is the reflection of the economic and social crisis which affected Austria since 2007, 2008. And there is of course, much frustration and much disappointment. The people feel betrayed by the major parties and that is basically the reason for the amazing rise of the far-right. As you can imagine, we are quite relieved that in the very last moment, the Green candidate Van der Bellen, managed to surpass the candidate of the far-right.
However, what remains true and what is alarming is the fact that practically half of the Austrian population voted for the candidate of an extremely reactionary, nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant party. So the thrill is not over yet. We must be prepared for dramatic times to come.
PERIES: And what led to this, this was a run-off, and then all of the parties that were center Democratic parties to far-left parties all had just collapsed their support to get Van der Bellen elected. Give us a sense of what happened prior to this election, which was during the run off election.
BAIER: Well, it is not exactly true that the formerly major parties, the Austrian People’s Party, which is the conservative, Christian democratic party, and the Social Democratic Party outspokenly supported Van der Bellen. As a matter of fact, both parties tried to find ways, even to coalesce the far-right. The Social Democrats, who so for example in the region of [inaudible] in which they form a coalition government with the far-right, and so the parties themselves refrained from calling to support Van der Bellen.
What is true is Austrian civil society mobilized and yes, indeed, the political establishment, or the, i would say the, response were part of the political establishment endorsed Van der Bellen in the last weeks. But the political parties as such, were not able to take this decision with obviously what would have been necessary or what would have been necessary, or what’s necessary in order to prevent the far-right from getting the, becoming the head of the state [crosstalk] in the–
PERIES: [interceding]– And to what extent, Walter, did the refugee crisis exasperate the political polarization in the country?
BAIER: Well, I mean, in a certain sense I want to talk about the refugee crisis because it’s ridiculous that all 18 thousand people who seek asylum in Austria, a crisis [inaudible]. The crisis consists in that neither the European Union nor the main political court in Austria were able to manage the arrival of this number of people.
But please remember in 1966, after the Hungarian revolution, 120 thousand from Hungary came over the borders and received welcome in a welcoming way, and the same applied then in 1968 after the invasion of the Warsaw Pact treaty state, Czechoslovakia, so the mismanagement of the arrival of the refugees, this signifies a political crisis and not the [inaudible] crisis exact. But what is true is this accelerated the process of polarization, but [inaudible], also in the European level, showed that the fear of losing cultural identity, even islamophobia, are not the major driving forces between the shift to the right.
This has to do with disappointment about democracy. This has to do with a fear of social downward mobility of the middle strata. This has to do with the broadly spread impression of people that the ruling party do not represent them anymore. And as in Austria, there is no radical left political alternative able to take up the demands, the hopes, and the fears of the people. It’s more or less likely, and that is what is happening, that these frustrations are articulated by this far-right party.
PERIES: All right, that’s very concerning for many Europeans, this recent surge of the right wing parties in Europe, and so we’re gunna take that issue up in our next segment. Walter, thank you so much for joining us.
BAIER: Yes, pleasure being with you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
SHARMINI PERIES, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back. This is part two of an interview with Walter Baier about the presidential elections in Austria and the rise of the far-right in Europe. Walter Baier is an economist and the coordinator of Transform Europe Network. Walter, thank you again for joining us.
BAIER: Yes, my pleasure being with you.
SHARMINI: So Walter, elections throughout most of Europe in the past three years have shown an increasing share of votes going to the far-right. Political parties that we didn’t expect to have this kind of prominence in Europe. What does this increase in the far-right’s popularity have to do with?
BAIER: Well, you’re right in saying that this is something that does not concern only particular countries or a particular region of Europe. This is a European-wide trend. The six best performing far-right parties have come from all parts of Europe. From the north you have Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, You have Switzerland, which is a neutral country in the center of Europe. You have Austria. Then you have France in the west, the UK in the north. So you see, this is a European trend.
Which is the expressed here, it is the same story as it is an Austrian case, which expresses a deep frustration, a discontent of large segments of the society with the state of democracy and with the social and economic conditions in which they are living. All service shows this, and shows this through the last two decades, but what is new now is that this feeling of frustration about democracy and about how things are handled in our state, coalesce with the economic crisis and with impoverishment of large numbers of people, of deprivation of parts of the working class, and, pardon me, and with an increasing fear of those segments of society which still are living in better and consolidated conditions, that even their conditions will deteriorate so that they then will be put in a state of precariousness.
And the leading party, the big coalition of the leading parties on the European level, which are the conservatives, the social democrats and the liberals, show, demonstrate that they are either not willing, or not apt to cope with the situation which they are more or less engaged with implying policies of austerity, of downgrading social welfare state arrangements, and so on and so forth, all things which frighten and scare people, and this leads to polarization.
It’s not unilaterally so that this discontent is only articulated by the far-right parties. If you look into the elector without in 2015 you could say that 11 percent of the voters voted for radical left parties, [inaudible], a number of other parties. But 22 percent of the voters voted for far-right parties. So we see an asymmetrical polarization to the detriment of the political center which rightfully is held responsible for the deterioration of the social, economic, and political situation in Vienna.
PERIES: Now you argued in a panel you were on at the Left Forum, that there is a real crisis in democracy in Europe. What did you exactly mean by that?
BAIER: Well, democracy to a large extent, is and was, hollowed throughout the last decade. There is the authoritarian turn in the European Institutions, with which the European Union tries to cope with the economic crisis. However, as long as people had the feeling that things are going well for them, as long as real wages increased and unemployment rates remained low, as long as neighbor relations seemed to be stable.
This did not result in tremendous shifts in the political system, but now at least the decline of the European economy, the decline of the welfare state arrangements changes this, and now people lose trust in democracy because they see it doesn’t matter whether you vote for Sarkozy or Hollande. Both of them employ the same policies, the same policies of cut people feel not hurt, and take seriously. And this results in decline of trust in democratic institutions as such, and this is articulated by the authoritarianism promoted on the part of the far-right.
PERIES: Walter, the rise in nationalist parties and far-right parties is certainly gaining momentum in Europe altogether if you tally it all up, but also in specificities as we mentioned earlier in places like Switzerland, France, in Hungary, and so forth. What are the political, reasons? You defined some economic and social conditions, but what are the political reasons for this kind of a rise in the right?
BAIER: I would distinguish, with regard to the political reasons, between what I describe as a crisis of democracy, which is a domestic issue, namely, people don’t trust their governments, don’t trust the political parties in place. But at the same time, and this is relevant to understand the phenomenon of the rise of nationalism in Europe, we also have to see the crisis of legitimacy of the European Union, which is a currency union, economic union, now characterized through a harsh austerity policy which is detrimental to the social situations of millions and millions of Europeans, creating mass unemployment, youth unemployment, and so on and so forth.
But it’s also a specific arrangement of national relations in Europe, and nationalism is actually questioning this arrangement of the national relations in Europe. And this has the effect that the European Union is not transferring, it’s not at all democratic. The European Parliament cannot be called a fully fledged Parliament as it doesn’t dispose of the right to initiate laws.
And then what the Greek crisis shows so dramatically was that not all member states of the European Union are equal. There are the bigger ones, France, Germany and then particularly Germany was it’s draw, and then you have the smaller ones worth more or less, to accommodate the debt that the big ones decide on behalf of them. This creates a feeling that Europe is not working in service neither of social security nor of economic prosperity, nor of solidarity, and neither of democracy. I sense that this is the deeper source of the growing national movement in Europe.
PERIES: And the decline in popularity of social democratic parties in Europe, what is that due to?
BAIER: Democratic parties started off to represent the working class, and the welfare state compromised for which the social democratic parties then actually said, well, we do not any longer strive for socialism, but at least we guarantee a certain level of social security. We guarantee that your wages are rising gradually. Of course the rich have become richer, but at the same time, the mass of the population can be sure about the future.
This is no longer the case, so what’s the use of a social democratic party who is not anymore representing the working population. That’s the question which people, of the working population are asking themselves, and then they say goodbye to the social democratic parties.
And then the second issue, the second argument in this respect is that social democratic parties always stood for a certain, I would say, very general, and maybe not sufficient, however existing, class-consciousness. They stood for the interpretation, which many people in the population shared, that there are upper classes and lower classes, and the lower classes, the only thing which they have to defend themselves were trade unions and [class] solidarity. And this idea actually has been a problem for most of the European social democratic parties.
But if there is no solidarity within the lower classes, then part of the lower classes start turning against each other, then certainly people find out, well, there are the migrants, there are the teachers, there are the public servants who take money away from us, and this is the third time around for right, populist argumentations, which now are gaining ground in the working populations of our societies.
PERIES: Walter Baier, thank you so much for joining us today, and we hope to have you back very soon.
BAIER: Okay, thank you very much for your interest. See you soon hopefully.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.