The echo of the goosestep

Nationalist/populist tide sweeping through demoralised democracies of Europe may be about to re-assert itself in Austria

The fear of “globalisation” – manifested variously as xenophobia, of a fear of immigrants, of industrial decline and the export of jobs, of the EU, of finance capital .... – has underpinned the rise of the new populism on the left and right.

This week a new Europe-wide survey by Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation found those fears are felt most acutely in Austria and France – 55 per cent of Austrians and 54 per cent of French view globalisation as a threat.

Little wonder then that Austria's re-run of its presidential election on Sunday may produce Europe's first far-right head of state since the second World War. The Freedom Party's (FPO) Norbert Hofer is running neck and neck with former Greens Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen in a contest triggered after a reballot ordered for October was postponed until this weekend because of faulty glue on postal ballots.

Although the post is largely ceremonial, Hofer’s election will be seen as confirming the nationalist/populist and anti-EU tide sweeping the demoralised democracies of Europe and the US, and, may help to force early parliamentary elections that could propel the FPO, rooted in Nazism from which it has distanced itself, into government in Vienna.


Like Italy's referendum, also on Sunday, and the votes for Brexit and Trump, it will be seen as a harbinger of the prospects for the far-right in France, the Netherlands and Germany next year. Far-right populists are already in government in neighbouring Hungary and Poland.

Hofer, a leading light in the party for many years, lost the second round of the presidential election in May by a mere 31,000 votes to Van der Bellen. He is confident that Donald Trump's victory in the US will in the interim sufficiently loosen inhibitions among voters from supporting him. "With Trump's victory, that barrier has loosened a bit," he told the New York Times.

Like his European soulmates he is riding the tide of anti-Islamism in response to Austria’s admission of more than 120,000 migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia since last year. Although the FPO has long been associated with anti-semitism in recent times, playing to Islamophobia, it has improved relations with Israel.

Hofer, who has cultivated a more moderate image and describes himself as “centre-right”, complains about attempts to link the party to its history. After a bruising TV interview recently he complained that “it happens again and again before an election, unpacking the fascism cudgel” against his party. “It is a pity, because, you know, I was born in 1971 and I hate the National Socialists who are responsible for millions of deaths.”

Many, both at home and across the EU remain unconvinced and worry about how to do business with the party. On Sunday we will find out, however, if the airbrushing of history is sufficient to pull the wool over the eyes of a majority of voters. Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache says Trump has made anything possible.