Winners and Losers in Austria

It was by less than one percent of the vote, decided in absentee ballots, that Austria missed becoming the first country in the European Union to confer power onto a far-right political party.

The official tally gave the presidency to Alexander Van der Bellen of the Greens with 2,254,484 votes to Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer’s 2,223,458, or 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent.

Leftist British newspaper The Guardian led off its report on the election with an exclamation of relief: “Phew.” But clearly, this was no victory for either leftists or centrists; rather, as Hofer said in a concession statement on Monday afternoon, “The effort for this campaign is not lost, but an investment in the future.”

The future, he believes, belongs to him and his friends in the Freedom Party. If that sounds like a Nazi-style “tomorrow belongs to me” slogan, you’re right. There’s more to their ideology than disrelish for the jihab.

Hofer’s Freedom Party gained the support of half of Austria on the backlash against what he called in his campaign a “Muslim invasion.” It is certainly part of the rebellion throughout the European Union against the open-arms asylum policy of the elites that has plunged the continent into crisis.

In Austria, Poland, Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, the story is essentially the same. The inundation by massive waves of refugees eager for a safe — and prosperous — haven, but often contemptuous of European cultural and religious norms, combined with terror attacks by Islamic extremists, has driven masses of otherwise moderate voters to the right-wing parties. Those who have long stood for chauvinism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism have profited from the failure of the centrist parties to fulfill the first duty of any government: to provide for the safety and well-being of its citizens, along with the primary values that give their society cohesion.

Yet, Austria is at the same time a special case. While caught in the same EU refugee crisis, and moving in the same direction rightward, there is also an unmistakable Nazi tinge to it.

The rhetoric in the Austrian campaign reflected this, as Van der Bellen denounced Hofer as a “populist right-wing, pan-Germanic fraternity member.”

That was a reference to Hofer’s appearance in the German colors of the nationalist Marko-Germania student fraternity, which stands for “the German cultural community” and bears the slogan “Honor, Freedom, Fatherland.”

More than that, at his swearing-in as Freedom Party candidate he unashamedly adorned himself with a cornflower in his lapel, a well-known Nazi symbol in the 1930s. (A swastika armband would be going too far, even for Austria, where the explicitly Hitlerian symbols are banned.)

But even without these tokens of odium, the Freedom Party’s historical connection to the party of Hitler is no secret. From its inception in the 1950s, it has served as a haven for former Nazis, who were not purged from official life as they were in Germany. Hofer appeals directly to that constituency by advocating that the German-speaking Italian region of South Tyrol should be allowed to join Austria.

The mitigating factors in the Austrian case did not mitigate much. The presidency in Austria is a ceremonial office. The president’s singular authority is that he can dissolve the lower house of parliament, which triggers a general election; but other than that it’s all photo-ops. The real powers are held by the chancellor. Still, the near capture of such a prominent post gives tremendous impetus to the far right.

Then, too, the weakness of the established parties may have made it easier for the Freedom Party to win votes here than in other EU countries. Besides the refugee crisis, the electorate is frustrated with unemployment and weary of the colorless political operatives who have run Austria for decades. As unpalatable as the Freedom Party may be to the average voter, it at least promises change.

A day after the voting, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said, showing a flair for stating the obvious, that “one thing is absolutely clear — the protest that was expressed here is to be taken seriously.”

“Isolationism and the belief that one can magically make the asylum issue disappear … is an illusion,” Kern said.

The chancellor has no concrete program yet for what ails Austria, but he pledged to come up with one very soon, adding that he intended holding consultations with opposition parties to explore possible avenues of cooperation.

“You will hear from us in the coming weeks,” he said.

We have already heard from the opposition.