Far right's rise in Austria is no shock

May 26, 2016 11:17

The results of the Presidential elections in Austria have sent shockwaves through Europe. Aside from revealing just how polarised Austrian society has become, with voters shunning the two main parties to put the Greens and radical right Freedom Party into the second round, the election has reignited interest in the electoral strength of Europe's far right.

Although the Freedom Party's candidate, Norbert Hofer, was defeated, the margin was extremely narrow. Hofer attracted more than 2.2 million votes, or 49.7 per cent of the overall vote, losing to the Green candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, by 30,000 votes. After the result was announced, the Freedom Party candidate noted that his campaign had not been a failure. Rather, said Hofer, it had been "an investment in the future".

It is difficult to disagree. Many journalists were quick to point to the lingering Eurozone crisis and the refugee issue as the underlying cause. But those with longer memories of European politics will know that the rise of the Freedom Party has been coming. The election result was merely the latest episode in a story that began with the emergence of Joerg Haider in the 1980s. After taking control of the Freedom Party , he launched a sustained attack on the two main parties for their tight grip over Austrian politics and, in later years, for allegedly failing to control immigration.

Of course, some might also argue that the underlying current of ethnic nationalism in Austria runs much deeper in a nation that has often felt under threat from its neighbours and never came to terms with its role in European history.

It now appears distinctly unlikely that Austrian society will enter a period of harmony. As in other European states, the radical right is likely to enjoy further gains. Many journalists have overlooked the fact that the role of the President is largely ceremonial. Yet by the end of 2018, the country is due to hold new legislative elections. And according to recent polls, the Freedom Party is comfortably ahead. It is also important to note that public support for the Freedom Party stretches more widely across society than many assume.

In recent years, the Freedom Party has scored notably well among 18-30-year-olds and it has not been unusual to see its leader, Christian Strache, campaigning in nightclubs and trying to connect with young voters through music videos.

Before that we will have national elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands, all of which will throw new light on public support for Marine Le Pen, the Alternative for Germany and Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom.

Then in 2019, the continent faces a fresh set of elections to the European Parliament. Unless there is radical change, these will almost certainly see another strong performance by a combination of Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and, increasingly, anti-Islam parties. Aside from the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris - which have undoubtedly created a more favourable climate for the radical right - such parties are now devoting much more attention to campaigning on the perceived incompatibility of Islam within European societies. Drawing on the earlier strategy of Pim Fortuyn, some radical right leaders have also sought to anchor their critique of Islam in a claimed defence of Europe's Judeo-Christian heritage.

Others, like Strache, have visited Israel to pledge solidarity. This has the potential to broaden the radical right's appeal among those social groups that have traditionally remained wary about the radical right - mainly women, younger voters and the middle classes.

Indeed, there is now evidence that Marine Le Pen, for example, has had more success than her father in closing the "gender gap" in support for her party.

Therefore, while many have expressed relief that the latest advance by the radical right has been stalled, it is likely only a matter of time until we will be debating its enduring support once again.

May 26, 2016 11:17

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