View Full Version : Austrian Far Right: A Sign of Things to Come?

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008, 03:44 PM
As polls show a resurgence of xenophobic sentiment across Europe, Austria's extreme right has capitalised on popular apathy to make stunning gains in the recent general election

Hardly 18 months after the federal elections in 2006, a grand coalition in Austria reached an end. The Social Democrats (SPOE) and the People's Party (OEVP), joined in a coalition government, could no longer settle their disputes. As a result a general election was held at the end of September. As well as having a far-reaching domestic impact, the result aroused enormous international attention. This happened because of the regained strength of two strongly right-wing parties, the Freedom Party (FPOE) and the Alliance for Austria's Future (BZOE), whose success saw Austria's far right reach its strongest level since the Second World War.

Yet overall it was not a question of right or left but an election dominated by protest. SPOE and OEVP lost many votes (about six and eight percentage points) and they both dropped below 30 per cent to make their worst result ever in history.

The main reason for this weak performance was disappointment among voters. Many of them critisised the failure of the coalition government, and wanted to show this by choosing another option. In fact, around 400,000 former supporters of the coalition parties did not participate in the election at all.

The remaining group of disappointed voters was picked up mostly by two right-wing opposition parties, FPOE and BZOE. Both managed to use the protest atmosphere for themselves, and they gained about six percentage points each, giving them a total share of 28.2 per cent.

As the major gains were made by so called right wing parties, can the overall outcome of the election be described as a popular shift to the right in Austria? Hardly. As pointed out above, the motivation for the voters to change party preferences was not so much for ideological reasons as to protest against the government. In an exit poll, almost two thirds of the voters of the FPOE and half of the voters of the BZOE named this motive as an important decision factor. Reasons for protest were inflation and unemployment but also a sceptical view of the European Union, as well as increasing xenophobia.

The protest motivation is further underlined by the fact that voting for those parties did not mean voting for their participation in government. Only 27 per cent of Freedom Party voters said that they wanted the party leader to become chancellor. This number was even lower among new FPOE-voters.

Although the election did not indicate a substantial turn to the right in Austria, it would be wrong to ignore the warning signs. Despite the fact that the voter turnout rose slightly to 78.8 per cent in 2008 (a very high number compared to other European countries) the motives of non-voters are troubling. Data from polls suggest that their decision to pass on participating in the election has not so much to do with personal reasons or a lack of information. They stay out of the voting booth because they find none of the parties or politicians appealing at all. That means most of the non-voters have turned away from the political system itself and they are not likely to return soon.

Last Saturday saw a dramatic twist in this tale, with the death in a car accident of BZOE leader and former FPOE chief, Joerg Haider. Perversely, this could be seen as a new boost for the far right. Conflicts between FPOE and BZOE were more to do with personal differences linked to Haider than with different political positions. Now the parties will be better placed to work together without any loss of face. An alliance between the two would make them the single biggest body in Austria's parliament. As these far-right parties capitalise on the weakness of moderate politicians, and look to put their ideologies into practice, citizens throughout Europe should take heed.