Austrian right’s strong showing suggest further successes to come elsewhere

The FPÖ's narrow defeat is almost certainly not the end of right-wing populism in the country or elsewhere, where parties like Marine Le Pen's are expected to benefit. [Rémi Noyon/Flickr]

Nearly half of Austrian voters ended up voting for far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, showing that right-wing European populism’s time in the sun is far from over.  EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

Norbert Hofer’s (FPÖ) narrowest of defeats by independent candidate Alexander van der Bellen made waves far beyond the alpine republic. In the eyes of French political scientist Pascal Perrineau, the case clearly shows that right-wing populist parties across Europe are capable of garnering half of the votes. “This is something completely new,” Perrineau warned.

Until now, right-wing parties have been limited to something like 20 to 30% of the vote. Perrineau added that the FPÖ’s impressive showing means that France’s own extreme-right party, the National Front (FN) would be given fresh impetus. The party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, wants to challenge for the country’s presidency next year as well.

The reasons behind the right’s resurgence varies from country to country. In the recent past, it is the refugee crisis that has bumped them up in the polls. Despite the number of people arriving in the EU falling in recent months, limiting the amount of ammunition available to players like Hofer, the issue was still important enough to voters to get them to turn out. Sunday’s (22 May) vote is more than proof of this.

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In many countries, people are uneasy about globalisation in general, as well as being eurosceptic. Widespread fear of terrorism is also a significant factor and has driven approval ratings up, again to different extents depending on the country. According to a Eurobarometer at the end of last year, 27% of French people saw terrorism as the greatest challenge facing the country. In Germany and Austria, only 15% echoed this sentiment.

One common factor unites Europe when it comes to the rise of Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands: the parties of the middle seem too overwhelmed and do not have a response to the right.

Many of the centre’s politicians are still worried that the still-notable success of the Austrian right means that there is more to come in the future. Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign affairs minister, called Monday (23 May) on Europe to unite against populism.

The FPÖ has been a player on Austria’s political landscape for a while now. Back in 1999, when voters became frustrated by the ruling coalition, Jörg Haider’s party ended up getting enough votes to become the second strongest parliamentary force, eventually ending up in coalition with the Austrian’s People Party (ÖVP).

It was left up to Wolfgang Schüssel to set up shop in the chancellor’s office, despite the ÖVP only finishing in third place. Austria’s economic clout grew, but eventually the region of Carinthia, where Haider was governor, started to go downhill. Eight years after his death in a car crash, the FPÖ founder’s former stomping ground is having to deal with a bill of nearly €20 billion and has only just staved off the threat of bankruptcy.

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Nowadays, Heinz-Christian Strache has taken over from Haider. The new boss is considered to be more aggressive than Haider, but lacks the underlying current of Nazism. He has pursued a very strong course against foreigners and is staunchly anti-EU. However, the more the party’s support has grown, the more moderate Strache has become. This has opened the FPÖ up to the worried middle class and what remains of the working class.

Many FPÖ voters used to support the socialists (SPÖ), but have defected because they feel that their worries and problems have not been addressed. The possibility of a figure like Strache or Norbert Hofer being appointed chancellor has grown considerably.

These days, National Front chief Marine Le Pen has cut back on her public appearances. Perrineau believes that just surfing on public opinion is the best course of action for Le Pen. Although the FN failed to gain a region back in the December elections, it got 27% of the vote in both rounds of voting.

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Le Pen’s party would have been following the Austrian elections with great interest, given its similarities to the FPÖ. Both parties belong to the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament.

There are also parallels between Hofer and Le Pen, both are moderates in comparison to the rest of the parties they represent; Le Pen has long since renounced the antisemitic legact of her father, Jean-Marie, who has in the past dismissed the gas chamber of Auschwitz as a “detail” of the World War II and was dismissed from the party last year.

What long-term effects Hofer’s good performance will have on France remains to be seen and are currently difficult to predict. But the Austrian result means that there could be a majority for a “patriotic candiate”, according to one of the National Front’s deputy leaders, Florian Philippot.


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