If the Green-supported candidate wins the Presidency then it is a victory for progressives, but it is a hollow one. The FPÖ, for the first time, has posed a significant threat in the Austrian Presidential election embarrassing Le Pens’ repeated forays into second round as mere child’s play. Hofer’s victory is said to be the first far-right head of state in Europe since the Nazis. In some ways this is true, but obviously it involves categorising other characters like Franco or Putin as something altogether different.
Either way, the FPÖ, for all its suave suits and smooth talk is the direct descendant of Austria’s Nazis, an inescapable fact that we are confronted with. It is part of the broader wave of rising xenophobia that can be seen all over Europe: much of the rhetoric in the UK’s Leave campaign, PiS in Poland, Órban in Hungary, and the rise of the AfD in Germany all bear witness to it and so the mainstreaming of bigotry is by no means something exclusive to Austria.
If Hofer wins, then obviously there should be consequences. Europe cannot stand by while its heart turns black (or blue in the colour-coding of Austria’s political parties..). To prescribe what should be done however is not for a humble TNF Editor to say. More importantly, a Van der Bellen victory does not justify a collective sigh of relief and a continued resting on our laurels. Even if the FPÖ loses, it secured almost half of the votes, leaving the Austrian electorate divided into two ideologically opposed camps. It also serves as a bad omen for their next round of parliamentary elections, which could come with more severe consequences for the country.
More widely, our tools of democracy have been hijacked by right-wing populism; media institutions have been perverted from pursuing the truth to pursuing profit and along with principle being flung out the window has gone the informed voter. This is a crisis for the Western world and we need to think of solutions. Liberal values are not inevitably walking in lock-step with democracy, we have to take care not to confuse the two, and reflect on how to defend and strengthen the former without fatally compromising the benefits of the latter.
Closer to home, this election should serve as a wake-up call to our mother-organisation, JEF, and all the national-sections which constitute it. We have a #DemocracyUnderPressure campaign and preserving our liberal societies and values is central to what JEF is about. Despite this, little of substance seems to have come out of JEF at either Austrian or European level to challenge the FPÖ. Add to this the deafening silence of JEF over the UK’s Referendum campaign as but one example, and the message to take away from this is that the Federalists need to pull their finger out and speak up, not where and when it is (relatively) easy, but where it is hard.