Austrian election: A narrow escape, and a warning

Authoritarian, nationalist, anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic parties are testing the limits of the EU’s democratic boundaries

The narrow defeat of Norbert Hofer, of the far-right Freedom Party, in the race to become Austrian president nevertheless marked an extraordinary and ominous achievement on his part. The counting of nearly 900,000 postal ballots brought his rival, former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen, across the line by 50.3 to 49.7 per cent.

But by securing by far the highest vote for the far right in Old Europe since the second World War, Hofer’s feat will resonate through Europe. It is a harbinger of the possibilities of far-right majorities in the not-so-distant future across the EU and of the near-total eclipse of mainstream, consensus conservatism.

Austria nearly went – and may go yet in next year's parliamentary elections – the way of Hungary and Poland, where authoritarian, nationalist, anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic parties are already severely testing the limits of the EU's democratic boundaries.

Cheered by Hofer's vote, and the likely size of the Brexit vote – whether successful or not – like-minded parties such as France's Front National will look forward with new confidence to looming electoral contests. Like Hofer, Marine Le Pen is likely to make it to the second round in France's presidentials in April 2017 and will take considerable comfort from the reality, increasingly echoed elsewhere, that neither of Austria's mainstream democratic parties was prepared to throw their weight behind the "democratic" candidate when the choice was that or a shamelessly xenophobic party that flirts with fascism.


The breaking of the centre parties in the EU electorally after a decade of political and economic hell has also broken the traditional consensus politics that dominated Europe on left and right since the war. Leaders like France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi or Spain's Mariano Rajoy became convinced that the way to defeat the threat from the right was to tack to the right, not least on migration policies, and not to make alliances with the left.

The result is to legitimise both anti-immigrant rhetoric and the arguments that perhaps an alliance with the far-right against the moderate left is acceptable and possible – echoes of Europe’s pre-war history.

Also waiting in the wings at the scarcely more democratic end of the far-right, Italy's Liga Nord, Sweden's Sweden Democrats, Finland's True Finns, Germany's Alternativ fur Deutschland, Belgium's Vlaams Belang, Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Law and Justice in Poland, and the paramilitary groups Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece.

Many of these had their origins in explicitly racist and neo-fascist organisations, as did Hofer’s Freedom Party. Ten years ago most were something of a joke. Now, all share growing electoral support and several are staking claims to a place in government. It is the centre which will not hold.