The advance of the far right in Austria has its origins in the crisis of the political centre, writes Kevin Ovenden in this first of a two-part article
This article, the first of two parts, locates the rise of the far right in Austria within the political crisis of the parties of government. That crisis is Europe-wide, and the far-right danger is far from unique to Austria. Part 2 will look at the response of the European Union and why instead of providing a barrier to resurgent fascist forces, it is in fact one of elitist and undemocratic structures which is fuelling their rise.
Europe polarising – Austria divided
The far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) came within 30,000 votes of winning the Austrian presidency on Sunday. That has sounded the alarm over the potential for barbaric outcomes to the manifold crisis consuming the European continent.
The FPÖ is a far-right party with Nazi origins and a fascist core. Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, spent his youth in the fascistic street-fighting milieu. He is seeking to become the chancellor (the prime minister) of Austria at the next general election, scheduled for October 2018.
The FPÖ candidate for president, Norbert Hofer, has a similar background in one of the German Burschenschaften, ultra-nationalist student associations. He boasts that he recently bought a Glock-26 pistol. When it was put to him during the campaign that the office of Austrian president is largely ceremonial, he responded: “You will be surprised to see how much is possible.”
Last summer, the images from Austria were very different. As refugees arrived in large numbers, by train or on foot via neighbouring Hungary, the international media was full of footage of their heartfelt reception in Vienna.
The city mayor – a long-standing figure of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) – instructed the police to assist the arriving refugees. They did.
Pictures of smiling Viennese policemen – many visibly moved by the experience – carrying Syrian infants from the trains arriving at Hauptbahnhof station contrasted with those of their Hungarian counterparts, beating and herding like animals the same refugees in Budapest.
The popular outpouring of solidarity exceeded that improvised by the state. When the Hungarian authorities sought to stop the onward movement, large numbers of often-young Austrians headed to the border with food and water for the refugees, and with cars to carry them onwards to a place of greater safety.
And then, when racist forces began to agitate against the new arrivals, Vienna saw tens of thousands of residents take to the streets. It was one of the largest of the many demonstrations across Europe in late summer 2015 proclaiming: “Say it loud. Say it clear – refugees are welcome here.”
It all now seems a faded memory. The rise today of far right forces in Austria and Europe is frighteningly vivid. When seen through the squint-eyed focus of so much of the European media, and with the determination of the European elites to deny that the radical left even exists, it can leave us thinking that perhaps the movement of welcome for the refugees last summer never really happened at all.
It did happen. So did the near entry of a pistol-wielding fascist into the Hofburg presidential palace in Vienna last Sunday. How can both have taken place?
One was not supplanted by the other. Both continue to exist. That is why the vote in the Austrian presidential election was split down the middle, nearly 50:50 – on a high turnout.
Austria is divided. The clearest expression of that division is between city and countryside/small town. Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party leader standing as an independent, had a clear majority in Austria’s cities. The fascist Hofer won the villages, towns and rural areas.
That geographical split betrays the social and political divide in the country. The FPÖ attracts support across society. But where it had majority support in the election was in the areas that for decades were the bedrock of the conservative and mainstream right – the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).
That is also where it first broke through three decades ago, when its now deceased leader, Jörg Haider, rose to prominence in the prosperous province of Carinthia.
From that borderland bridgehead he was able to break out. The FPÖ does now enjoy considerable electoral support among blue-collar workers. Some surveys show that it is the most popular party even among trade union members. But that is not where its advance began, which took it to second place with 27 percent at the general election of 2000 and into government with the centre-right ÖVP for a few years.
The FPÖ did not conquer working class support from within. The SPÖ and the sclerotic trade union officialdom attached to it abandoned their working class supporters. They sold the pass and allowed the FPÖ to enter from without.
The crisis of the political centre
Grand coalitions of the centre left and centre right have become more common in Europe in the crisis years: Germany and Greece (between 2012 and 2015) being the most prominent examples. They are a response by the traditional parties of government to their declining share of the national vote and of social support.
Such coalitions are not new in Austria. Even on the few occasions since the Second World War when there has not been a formal coalition between the SPÖ and ÖVP, they have long governed together nationally, regionally, and in the allocation of state positions, with each benefiting from the lucrative contracts that flow from them.
From the mid-1990s onwards – with the turn to Blairite neo-liberalism and then to the doctrine of austerity following the crash of 2008 – that has meant for the social democratic SPÖ the sundering of its connections with the working class.
At the last general election the SPÖ was able to come first and to lead yet another coalition with the centre-right ÖVP. But on the 80,000-strong May Day demonstration in Vienna this year the then SPÖ chancellor of Austria, Werner Faymann, and his party elite entourage were booed and jeered off the stage. He was forced to resign shortly after.
A recent in-depth article in the German new magazine Der Spiegel captured well the sense of alienation in working class and popular Austria:
“We are being steamrolled by globalisation; nobody is listening to us; and the market economy benefits others.”
The article continued: “But the FPÖ is listening and is quick to offer simple solutions: Close the door. Shut out the migrants.”
How is it possible that that simplistic and false solution could gain such a hearing when not one year earlier much of Austria demonstrated in words and deeds the opposite?
The answer is not that the far right crafted some Wunderwaffe– a miracle weapon of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism – and then put it into the hands of small-town Austria to shoot the gates of the presidential palace nearly off their hinges.
Rather, the SPÖ-led government itself embraced the racist turn, opened the gates to the fascist barbarians, and dispersed the demoralised guards who had taken to the streets in their tens of thousands only last summer.
Former SPÖ chancellor Faynmann this year reversed his policy of allowing in the refugees. He did it as part of the push by Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin to stop the refugee flows as a whole into Europe.
One result of that was the EU-Turkey deal of shame. It depends upon the authoritarian government in Ankara using the monopoly of legal violence of the Turkish state to stop people fleeing to Europe.
The second consequence is the continuing unrolling of razor-wire fences and the re-establishment of militarised borders within Europe. They include between Austria and Slovenia, and between Austria and Italy – which the refugees are now trying to reach via the even more perilous route from Libya across the southern Mediterranean.
The third result – painfully obvious in Austria – has been to breathe fresh life into and to legitimise all the far right forces across Europe. They were unable to take to the streets in large number last summer when the refugees were arriving.
They were reduced instead to attacks on refugee accommodation or upon Muslim places of worship and property at night.
The refugee arrivals did not trigger the latest advance of the far right. The turn to anti-refugee measures by the EU and governments did that.
The establishment and the far right
What, then, is the effective barrier to the further rise of the far right? We cannot look to the Austrian establishment and its political forces. That includes the incoming president Alexander Van der Bellen.
He was the candidate of the Austrian political establishment in the run-off election. And the twin establishment parties in coalition government show little sign of changing the approach that paved the way to the FPÖ’s near victory on Sunday.
The SPÖ’s Christian Kern has taken over from Faynmann as chancellor. He was the boss of the Austrian national railway. He is committed to the same path of austerity and of Fortress Europe as his predecessor.
There is a ferocious argument within the SPÖ, which like the ÖVP managed just 11 percent for its candidate in the first round of the presidential election. Left wing voices who rebelled over the anti-refugee turn by Faymann are pointing to the example of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain as an alternative for the party.
But there is a big right wing bloc in the SPÖ. They argue that Faynmann did not go far enough down either the austerity or the anti-refugee tracks.
One of its most prominent figures is Hans Niessl. He has been governor of the impoverished eastern province of Burgenland for 15 years. Last year he clung on to office by going into coalition with the FPÖ.
His response to the decline of working class support for his party will be familiar to anyone who has listened to the right wing of the British Labour Party, the German SPD, the French Socialist Party or their equivalents across Europe. It was to talk vaguely of “listening to people’s concerns”. But by that he did not mean the bitterness at being left behind by big-business, capitalist Europe and then trampled by austerity.
He meant listening to the popular echo of the anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism pumped out by the mainstream right and by the far right, with the volume turned up by the corporate media.
The “clever” coalition deal in the eastern province was meant to stymie the far right last year; but it has proved disastrous. The near victorious fascist candidate Hofer is himself from Burgenland. It is from that base that he appealed across the country this year.
Austria’s most senior trade unionist has endorsed the “Burgenland line” saying that the centre left should accommodate to the FPÖ as an alternative to resisting it. Not by confrontation but by cooperation will the SPÖ win back those workers the FPÖ has beguiled. He says, “You can’t just shove the 35 percent who voted for Hofer into the right wing.” His solution is to shove the SPÖ sharply to the right.
This failed course has led some of the progressive, urban opinion in Austria to look instead to the new “pro-European” president in combination with the EU to provide a solid barrier to the far right taking national office in the coming years.
Van der Bellen made all sorts of concessions to the far right during the election campaign, saying on several occasions that he agreed with “Mr Hofer” and parading his patriotism by echoing in his slogans the far right’s deployment of the term “homeland”.
He has said that he will use his limited constitutional powers to oppose the FPÖ. But when asked if he would swear in – which is within his power to refuse – an FPÖ chancellor should the far right come top in a general election, he said that he would: with one condition.
If the FPÖ threatened to leave the EU, then he would not swear in Strache or any other far right candidate as chancellor.
That is a doubly disastrous position. First, it in practice means that he has said he will sign in any future FPÖ government. Second, the stipulation that membership of the EU is his red line will in fact make a victory of the far right in a future Austrian general election more likely, not less.
The FPÖ’s relationship to the EU
The FPÖ’s position on Austrian membership of the EU has vacillated wildly over the years. It was opposed to Austria joining in 1995. But it raised no objection to EU membership when it was in government with the centre right five years later.
Its current position is for staying in the EU unless Turkey is allowed to join. Then it says it would push to leave.
Mainstream Austrian politicians have said a similar thing. Virulent opposition to Turkey joining the EU is part of the thinking of the Austrian establishment, of the ÖVP and (largely) of the SPÖ.
Nearly a decade ago the then Austrian foreign minister invoked the “spectre of 1683” and the defeat of the Turkish army that year at the “Gates of Vienna”, a rallying cry today for fascist Islamophobes across Europe and North America, in killing the Turkish bid at the time to join the Union.
Van der Bellen’s feeble condition can easily be met by any FPÖ would-be chancellor. The condition itself also casts the fascist right as little different from Austria’s establishment and mainstream politicians in the shared attitudes of all of them to the EU and in their hostility to Turkey and Turkish migrants (but not to Erdogan enforcing the anti-refugee deal).
Furthermore, the EU is even less a barrier to the advance of fascism in Austria and elsewhere than is the country’s newly elected president.
EU officials and politicians said as much in the week running up to last Sunday’s election. In anticipation of a possible far right victory they said there was no appetite at all to issue diplomatic or any other sanctions should the fascist Hofer become the president of Austria.
That contrasts with the short-lived, and limited, diplomatic cold-shouldering of Austrian ministers at European gatherings when the FPÖ joined the coalition government 16 years ago. The EU and its national governments then felt forced to respond to the public shock in Austria and across Europe at the entry of veteran fascists into governmental office in Europe for the first time since the Second World War.
What has happened in the intervening decade and a half, however, is that the EU has not only accommodated to the entry into government of hard right forces in Europe, it has through its imposition of austerity helped to bring down elected governments in favour of unelected leaders and, on their coattails, fascist ministers.
This is what the EU did in Greece five years ago when it helped to force out the social democratic government of George Papandreou. An unelected banker took over. In his coalition was the LAOS party – not dissimilar to the FPÖ. A veteran fascist was given a junior ministry.
In the elections that followed in 2012, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn broke through to gain 18 MPs. An explosion of anti-fascist resistance has forced the Greek parliament to cut off funding to Golden Dawn for the last three years. Its leaders are now on trial for running a criminal conspiracy.
The Expo Swedish anti-fascist monitoring group revealed two weeks ago, however, that the EU, via the European Parliament, has continued to fund Golden Dawn throughout that period to the tune of hundreds of thousands of euros.
The excuse trotted out by EU officials as to why they would be unable to take measures had the FPÖ won is that a number of hard right and increasingly authoritarian governments in the former Eastern Europe would veto doing so in the EU’s Council of Ministers.
It is a convenient excuse, which is even given credence on parts of the European left. But the reason for the EU’s inaction is not down to the peripheral states of the former Eastern Europe. It flows directly from the nature of the EU itself as one of the central forces driving the growth of racism and authoritarianism in Europe, and thus the advance of the far right.
We will turn to how and why that is happening in part 2 of this article.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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