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Austrian Election Exposes a Polarised Nation

In late May, far-right wing leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, Norbet Hofer, lost Austria’s presidential election to Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader by just 0.6% of votes. That the election was ultimately decided by postal votes suggests that Austria is becoming a deeply divided nation that has moved away from the traditional political centre.

In many ways, the rise in right-wing extremism is not surprising. Austria has a long and complicated history in terms of its past in the Third Reich and, with the increase of asylum seekers in Europe, an anti-immigrant sentiment has come to the fore. In part, the extreme right’s popularity is due to a combination of external factors as well as internal national issues. It is unclear whether the popularity of the Freedom Party is a result of Austria’s dormant history or a result of the culture of fear permeating a rapidly changing continent.

Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory points to a narrowly averted crisis. If Hofer had won, he would be the first far-right wing leader in the European Union. The growing popularity of anti-immigrant parties in recent years has been a cause of alarm for centrist and left-wing ideologues in Europe. However, Van der Bellen’s victory suggests that Austria may not be as conservative as previously thought. As elected president Van der Bellen’s stated “I mean, take myself for instance...I have a migration background and still got a majority of Austrians behind me in this election.”

There is a general sense of dissatisfaction with the established party system in Austria, where the centre-right and centre-left governments are currently ruling together in a coalition. The two ruling parties’ candidates, who have alternated as president since the end of World War II, were wiped out in the first round. The level of discontent surrounding the political norm in Europe appears to be growing, even as these parties make half-hearted attempts at anti-immigrant and anti-EU policies in order to retain members who may stray to more conservative parties, such as Austria’s Freedom Party.

Although Van der Bellen has narrowly claimed victory, the near-win for the far-right candidate suggests that an extremist platform can garner significant traction on the national political stage. It can, in fact, win half the votes, demonstrating that it can no longer be treated as an “extreme” outlier. To what extent this increase in anti-asylum seeker and pro-nationalist sentiment has contributed to the increase of far-right wing parties in Europe can be debated, but it is certain that in Austria, right-wing extremism is growing and growing fast.

Zoe Meers is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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Image credit: Michael Gubi (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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