The first round of elections for a new Austrian president this weekend threatens to send tremors through Europe’s political establishment, with the far-right and Greens expected to knock the country’s two main political parties out of the race for the first time in modern history.
Since 1945, occupants of Vienna’s Hofburg palace have been backed by either the centre-left Social Democratic party (SPÖ) or centre-right People’s party (ÖVP), which have dominated the country’s politics.
However, in Sunday’s election for the country’s head of state, Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant Freedom party (FPÖ) is forecast by pollsters to take either first or second place after a surge in support following Europe’s refugee crisis.
Although surrounded by high levels of uncertainty, opinion polls suggest he will be joined in the run-off vote on May 22nd by Alexander Van der Bellen, the Green party’s candidate. Irmgard Griss, an Austrian judge running as an independent, is also polling strongly.
While the Austrian president has a largely ceremonial role with few real powers – the government is run by the chancellor – Sunday’s election will be closely watched in other European capitals. It represents an extreme example of a dynamic in evidence across the continent of mainstream parties eroding as voters increasingly gravitate towards fringe, often populist, parties.
“Over the past decade, Austria has been a harbinger of things to come in the rest of Europe. The FPÖ’s xenophobic stances in Austria were taboo in Germany – but now populist movements are starting there as well,” said Heather Grabbe, European politics expert at the European University Institute in Florence.
In France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen is expected to poll strongly in next year’s presidential election, pushing socialist incumbent François Hollande out of the race. In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right bloc has lost support to the rightwing Alternative for Germany (AfD)
The FPÖ is arguably Europe’s best established far-right party. In 2000, under Jörg Haider, its charismatic leader who died in a high-speed car crash in 2008, the party entered into a coalition government with the ÖVP – leading to attempts by other European countries to ostracise Austria.
Weak economic growth, and the recent surge in refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, has encouraged “Haiderisation” across European politics - in which nationalist leaders play up differences between ordinary voters and the political elite, and argue newcomers are gaining unfair rights and privileges.
The polarisation of Austria, long regarded as one of Europe’s most stable, affluent and consensus-orientated democracies, shows that “Europe has to find clear-cut messages - maybe more liberal or maybe less liberal, but not something in between,” said Anton Pelinka, professor at the Central European University in Budapest.
Initially, Austria’s social democratic chancellor Werner Faymann backed Ms Merkel’s stance on refugees. But with support for his policies falling and the country’s institutions straining to cope with hundreds of thousands of arrivals in Austria, his government reversed its position. Measures to halt immigration inflows along the so-called Balkan route have strained relations between Vienna and Berlin.
Disaffection with Austrian mainstream politics, however, has been exacerbated by the country’s economic stagnation – and the fact that declining election support has forced the SPÖ and ÖVP into a “grand coalition” government.
“There is really deep distrust by the vast majority of the population,” said Thomas Hofer, a political analyst in Vienna. “The formation of the coalition – how they interact, how they quarrel and cannot agree on a cohesive programme – appears as pure stalemate.”
Opinion polls show the SPÖ and ÖVP candidates trailing in fourth and fifth place in Sunday’s contest.
If the FPÖ’s Mr Hofer secures a place in the second round vote, Austrian voters are likely rally around whomever his opponent is in an attempt to halt the party’s rise. But Vienna’s policy reversal over immigration showed the party’s growing influence over Austria policies.
“Ten years ago it would have been impossible for Austria to impose border controls like that – it would have contradicted Austria’s Balkans policy,” said Ms Grabbe.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)