The Actors in the Rise of Austrian Populism

Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

The political domain in Europe has been shifting dramatically in recent years, contributing to a more scattered, nationalistic and desperate union. We can use Austria to explore how populism comes into existence, what tendencies it pursues and who plays a key role in its movement.

Every day, we receive news of surging xenophobic sentiments in Europe, leading to the rise of populism. Democracies are being undermined by politicians who first nurture the fears of the population and then exploit them in order to gain power. Particularly in Austria, this has become evident in the form of the country’s first rerun of a presidential election in history, whereas the initial vote was won by a margin of a mere 31,000 votes. With populism gaining increasingly widespread popularity, we need to start asking who the actors in this development are in order to contain it.

On May 22, the country held its run-off ballot between Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer. The former is a socialist of the left-wing Green Party and the latter a populist of the right-wing Freedom Party. The two candidates could not be more different; they signify the divide between citizens. The election ended with a paper-thin majority of 50.3% for Alexander Van der Bellen compared to 49.7% of popular votes for his opponent. However, after the results were posted they were contested due to a violation of the respective laws during the process of counting ballots–an embarrassing and unprecedented event for the nation. In fact, according to The Economist, a nationwide election had never been repeated in any Western democracy. On July 1, the Austrian High Court officially ruled in favour of a re-election, returning hope to the populist movement and their vocal leaders. Now the question arises: Which camp will gain the advantage from shifts in votes?

To address this question, it is crucial to identify the different forces in the election–who voted for whom on the first ballot. According to Der Standard, an Austrian news publication, the greatest support for Norbert Hofer came from men at the age of 30 to 59, amongst whom 63% voted for the right-wing candidate. Overall, 60% of men and only 40% of women voted for Hofer, which clearly indicates a divide between the two sexes. A huge disparity also exists between people with different levels of education: 81% of people who graduated from university voted for Van der Bellen while 67% of citizens who completed an apprenticeship voted for Hofer. So what can we make of these numbers?

The claim that either the young or the old generation is the decisive cause of the surge of populism in Austria is unreasonable. It is mostly middle-aged men who give rise to this massive shift towards right-wing parties. One plausible explanation of this phenomenon that has been posited by many leaders in the field of political science is the effect of the recent refugee crisis and its fallout in Europe. Eckhard Schulze argues that the influx of refugees potentially increases the competition for native workers in low-wage jobs, which leads them to favour protectionist policies.

Populist leaders have effectively exploited this fear of losing one’s job and have thereby gained much approval. There is no need for them to appeal to any other aspect of politics than immigration. By shifting the focus to one controversial issue, populist parties gain support by giving an alternative to the establishment’s traditional, more moderate stance. However, politics doesn’t confine itself to immigration or job preservation. It is comprised of numerous categories that span far beyond the debate on how to treat refugees. This fact has to be emphasized with rigor because in 2003 after the nationalistic Austrian Freedom Party made its way into the ruling coalition, other countries’ criticism of its views towards migrants, its protectionist ideas and its stance towards the European Union was significant. It turned out that they had reason to disapprove: Karl-Heinz Grasser, who held the post of finance minister at the time, has since been implicated in numerous corruption scandals.

But amongst all these mentioned actors in Austrian politics, who is truly responsible for the rise of nationalist sentiments? According to an article by Gerfried Sperl in Der Standard, “Dem Populismus gelingt es, Lügen als Wahrheit zu verkaufen,” meaning that populism succeeds in selling lies as truths. But in a democracy where information is readily available and accessible to all citizens, can such a movement really be attributed to politicians? It is certainly their job to foster their party’s interests and spread the message they believe can contribute to their party’s mission. What becomes increasingly evident, however, is the lack of involvement and agency from some more moderate parties as they lose ground. Austria is a multi-party democracy and should be respected as such. Drawing attention to merely the refugee crisis undermines this concept as there are only two possible stances: pro-immigration and anti-immigration. In accordance with this view, Cas Mudde (2004) defines “populism as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups.” The confrontation resulting from such substantially opposing views is counter-productive in that either side tries to override the other’s ideas. Parties move increasingly further apart in their stance and rhetoric gets hostile. Culminating in such a conflict-driven society cannot be the objective of politics.

To allow Austria to become such an antagonistic society would mean to allow the entire European Union to be similarly antagonistic. Every member country of the EU is equally important for the union and therefore highly influential in the region. We cannot dismiss the surging movement of populism in Europe as a small-scale development; the number of its supporters is simply increasing too quickly. We have to invigorate that radical views of any kind among leaders and citizens are harmful. Only by mitigating them will we be able to reverse the tendency towards de-unified countries and a scattered union.