Austrian Presidential Election Shows How United Front Politics Can Defeat the Far Right
Walter Baier, former national chairman of the Communist Party of Austria, says the next challenge will be to maintain alliances against the far right in the upcoming parliamentary elections
SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. In Austria, former Greens leader, Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent for President had defeated Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party on Sunday. Van der Bellen won 53.3% of the vote in a re-run of an election that was held in May of this year. Hofer and the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Freedom Party are now setting their goals on the next year’s Parliamentary Election. The defeat of the Freedom Party comes as the extreme right-wing and racist political atmosphere shifts hard right in Austria, parts of Europe and right here in the United States. With us to discuss the election results is Walter Baier. Walter is the former National Chairman of the Communist Party of Austria. Walter, so good to have you back with us.
WALTER BAIER: Thank you for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, Walter, give us a sense of who is Van der Bellen? He ran as an independent but he comes from the former Greens Party. So, give us a sense of who was running for President.
WALTER BAIER: Well, actually, he is still belonging to the Green Party. The tradition in Austria, that when you run for Presidential elections you indicate that you are Independent from any political engagement. Actually, he was my professor when I started Economics, 35 years. And he is I would say, he was political later on. As an economist he is neo-classical, however, at the moment he seems to be the best person available to work within Austria, internationally, and also being a counterweight against possible right-wing government, which might come up after the forth-coming Parliamentary elections. Maybe next year, maybe 2018, we will see.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, we know his contender Norbert Hofer, is a member of the hard-right Freedom Party of Austria. Tell us more about the dangers of Hofer’s rise to power and what has happened in the last few months since May with the party.
WALTER BAIER: Well, actually, the Austrian Freedom Party is a traditional party. It was founded immediately after the Second World War in order to gather, to collect, all the former members of the Nazi Party. And, actually, it goes back to the 19th century, as it represents the German Nationalist tendency among the Austrian elites. German Nationalism means that this party thinks that the Austrians ethnically, and as a nation, belong to Germany. And as you can imagine, between 1938 and ’45 when Nazi Germany occupied Austria, they were the ones who exercised the power in the conflict. So, after ’45 they were marginalized, they were put aside. However, they were allowed together again.
And when then in the ’90s, the political crisis came up and pending economic crisis reached Austria, with applying populism as a political method, they managed to collect large layers of votes, a large segment of voters and at the moment, I would say that the polls give them about 30%, which would mean that they are the strongest party in the country. They are xenophobic. They are racist. They are anti-migrants. They are against the refugees. They are anti-Semitic. They are the ugly face of German Nationalism in Austria society. This man is a dangerous man. Actually, he indicated during the campaign by saying, you would be amazed by what is possible, which he intended to exercise the Office of the Austrian President in an authoritarian way trying to interfere in Parliamentary processes. So, we are happy that we defeated him.
SHARMINI PERIES: And how significant is the Presidency in Austria?
WALTER BAIER: Well, this is a difficult question because since 1945 there had been an understanding among all the acting presidents, that they do exercise the office in a very cautious and laid-back manner, but actually, the Austrian Constitution was changed in 1929 in a very authoritarian way, granting tremendous rights to the President. They were never used, but Hofer indicated that he was ready to use them extensively. So, in theory, the President actually has a lot of possibilities and a lot of powers and we are quite happy that with Van der Bellen, we again had a person as President who from the very beginning said, “I will confine, will limit, the way in which I exercise my office to a mere representative functions.” Which is democratic, because we are democratic parliamentary democracy. Meaning, that the most of the competences and the power has to lie with the Parliament and indirectly then, with the government-elected part of Parliament.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right, and what do you think the significance of his victory is in terms of the rest of Europe?
WALTER BAIER: Well, I think it is of a high symbolic value because it demonstrates and it proves we can defeat them. We can defeat them. We can do it. And I mean, I’m a leftist person. I am very critical towards the general agenda of Alexander Van der Bellen who is a liberal, a liberal in a good sense, but at the same time, a liberal in a bad sense, as he’s also supporting the neo-liberal agenda of the European Union. However, that we were able to unite actually, all the democratic forces in the churches, even Democrats among the Conservatives, the social Democrats, the Greens, the Communists, the Independent Leftists — that all of these people were able to say at the certain moment, “No, we do everything to prevent a German Nationalist and Neo-Nazi to become President of the Republic.” This is something. And I must tell you, I’m not only happy about it, I’m proud of this because this is the sort of intelligence, which we now desperately need in Europe.
SHARMINI PERIES: And of course, many people in Austria are celebrating this victory. What do you think the next set of elections coming up now that Hofer has been defeated? He’s hoping to influence the next set of elections. And I’m not asking you to predict here, but what do you think the rise of the right, will it have any momentum in Austria in the coming year?
WALTER BAIER: Well, I mean, this was a defeat for the far right. However, if you look realistically into the fears, you see that almost the whole political system rallied behind Van der Bellen… rallied to get a majority of 53%, while the 46% which attained, Hofer actually – 46% for a candidate who was supported only by one party. And of course, this demonstrates the danger and the threat under which we are living because it shows that they are very strong. They have a momentum. They are dynamic. I mean, there are numbers indicating that amongst the voters of Van der Bellen, only a third of them really voted for the candidate, while the majority of his voters only voted for him in order to prevent Hofer to become president. While on the other side, almost 60% of the voters of Hofer voted for Hofer because they thought he was the better candidate. Meaning that still the dynamic and the thrust is on the side of the far right.
However, we’re talking about politics and politics is not simply the extrapolation of certain numbers in a certain moment. Politics meaning can influence the processes and if you had asked me two months ago if I would believe that Van der Bellen would win with 6% difference, I would have denied. So, you see you can change the things. We are at the moment trying to find out in which way we can prepare ourselves to the Parliamentary elections, which will be much more complicated and much more difficult than winning the Presidential elections.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, and then finally, we do know that Van der Bellen is an economist. You had mentioned that you had some affiliation with him. Do you think that Van der Bellen will take the economy seriously enough to defeat some of the, sort of, the anti-austerity measures that he should take up? For example, we have left socialism and liberal parties in Europe that are taking up very much an austerity agenda. Do you think that Van der Bellen will be going against that belief and in seeing that, you know, what else is taking place in the rest of Europe, will take that into consideration in his leadership? Or does he even have the power to do that as President?
WALTER BAIER: No, I’m afraid; first, he has no competences with regard to economy. Second, as I had mentioned, he promised to exercise his office in a very cautious and careful way. And third, I’m afraid to say so, but he is with the neo-liberal agenda. He is a neo-classical economist. He believes in, I would say, he regards austerity as the necessary price for reaching economic equilibrium. So, we cannot rely on him in this regard and this is a matter of course, of the Parliament and of the government. And this actually is the real problem behind all this, because the disenchantment of the people towards politics has to do with the impact of austerity on everyday life. And if politics do not change, there won’t be no possibility to stop the soar of the far right. And as far as we see right now, neither The Social Democratic Party nor The Greens will be ready and will be willing to run in the forth-coming elections on an anti-austerity platform. They will try to manoeuver, even thinking, some of the social democrats even think, that it would be for the benefit if they could make some arrangement and some alliances with the far-right party in order to preserve their power.
So, the problem actually is that in the run-up of the Parliamentary elections, it will be much more difficult to rally an alliance, which necessarily must go against austerity and must go against a neo-liberal conscience, which actually links all the established parties in the Parliament. Much more difficult – but this is the condition to prevent the far right of winning the Parliamentary elections. Let’s see what we can achieve. But for the moment it’s unclear.
SHARMINI PERIES: Walter, I thank you so much for joining us and giving us this very informative interview. Thank you.
WALTER BAIER: Thank you, was a pleasure being with you, bye-bye.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.