Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
People pass an election campaign poster of far-right Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in Vienna on May 7. The poster reads "The law comes from the people. A new perception, Norbert Hofer, President."

Far right threatens to break through in Austria: How it came to this

Part 3 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

It was just last autumn when Austria solidified its reputation as a Western European nation, one that upholds the humanitarian ideals extolled by the European Union.

After asylum-seekers were stranded in Hungary by order of the government and later loaded into trains that diverted them to refugee camps instead of passage westward, Austria's then-Chancellor Werner Faymann minced no words. “Refugees put on trains in the belief they are going somewhere else entirely brings back memories of the darkest period of our continent,” he said.

By winter, when far more refugees arrived than expected, Mr. Faymann made one of Europe’s most stunning policy reversals. He placed a daily limit on asylum claims, which precipitated a series of border closures east of Austria, angered officials in Brussels, and ultimately cost Faymann his job.

Geographically in the middle of Europe, Austria has found itself pulled both east and west on the migration question. And now as spring has turned, the repercussions are clear. Long ruled at the political center, Austria has polarized as voters prepare for presidential elections May 22.

After the first round, neither mainstream party garnered enough support to make it to the final round, prompting Faymann’s resignation. Instead, Norbert Hofer, of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), who won the most votes with more than 35 percent, will face Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader, who received 21 percent.

The race is being closely watched as a bellwether. Austria’s Freedom Party was an early pioneer of the post-World War II far-right in Europe. And if Mr. Hofer were to win, he’d become Western Europe’s first far-right head of state of the era. His victory would also potentially thrust Austria deep into an identity crisis.

Columnist Gerfried Sperl, former editor-in-chief of Der Standard in Vienna, says it would place Austria’s capital Vienna not just physically “east of Prague, but politically too.”

He’s referring specifically to the brand of anti-migration and anti-EU politics, coupled with some authoritarianism, on display in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, he says. But Austrian dichotomy is a chronic historical theme which explains some of the discontent in what is typically perceived as a peaceful, prosperous Alpine nation.

Austria, divided

Anton Pelinka, an Austrian professor of political science and nationalism studies at Central European University in Budapest, says that while it was overshadowed during the cold war, when Austria stood on the western side of the Iron Curtain, “Austria has always been split between West and East.”

Faymann’s plight – and the Freedom Party’s gain – is due in large part to this split. As the numbers of asylum seekers poured into Austria, frustration rose – and turned to fear after the mass sexual assault cases on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany. Responding to public sentiment by taking a hard line, he ended up buoying the Freedom Party, which argued all along against mass migration.

Unlike Hungary or Poland, there is a clear division in society on the issue. Faymann was forced to step down precisely because he angered his social democratic base who say he abandoned the ideals of the left. Civil society here, as in Germany and much of Europe, has worked tirelessly to respond to the needs of asylum seekers, some 90,000 of whom entered Austria last year. Many remain confident that Austria, based on its wealth and experience with migration – of Hungarians after their 1956 revolution; of Turks during labor booms that started in the '60s; and war refugees from former Yugoslavia in the '90s – can integrate newcomers.

But the far right has seized the moment. They have long invoked a sense of homeland, or Heimat, for political gain, says Johannes Pollak, head of the political science department at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna.

“It has this connotation of a cozy feeling, where you know how things work and what the informal rules are in this society. We know we love our schnitzel and cakes, and ‘they’ don’t have a feel for that,” he says.

Searching for identity

But questions of identity are complicated by the layers of history. The Austrian Empire under the Habsburgs was a transnational entity, and the First Republic of Austria emerged as a shrunken independent state after World War I forced it to redefine itself.

“Austria lost its identity in 1918. It lost it again in 1938,” Mr. Pollak says, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. “It gained it in 1955,” with the signing of the Austrian state treaty of the Second Republic comfortably in Western Europe. But when the Iron Curtain came down, many of the former countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire looked beyond Austria for bearing, to the much more influential player in Europe – Germany.

Tony Judt, in his seminal book “Postwar,” chose to start it in Vienna of 1989 because it was a good place to “think ‘Europe,’” he writes. The imperial capital “was Europe,” before the “apocalypse” of World War I; it was reduced during the interwar period; annexed by Nazi Germany but then exonerated for its own role in Nazism; and then placed west of Soviet Europe. It thus “acquired a new identity as outrider and exemplar of the free world,” he writes.

By the '90s, as refugees were streaming in and the far right first ballooning, the country abandoned “its carefully cultivated post-war autonomy and joined the European Union,” Mr. Judt adds.

These changes shape perceptions still. While Austria is one of Europe’s richest members with solid economic performance, unemployment has been rising, especially among young people.

Today the Alpine nation is one of the most Euroskeptic countries in the EU, rivaling Cyprus for its malcontent. In the United Kingdom, which is voting next month on whether it wants to remain as part of the EU, 31 percent have a negative image of the EU, compared to 41 percent of those in Austria (and Cyprus), according to the latest Eurobarometer.

'Neither East nor West'

In many ways Austria is grappling with the same anger on display across the West, pointed at mainstream politicians. Here the social democrats and the center-right have alternated in power in Austria since World War II, often putting party loyalties above reform, at the same time that a once sterling economic picture worsens.

But Austrian duality again complicates the picture here, says Mr. Pelinka. The Second Republic successfully portrayed Austrians as the first victims of Nazi horror, while denying the roles of so many as loyal Nazis. Later, “Austria was treated by the Allies as a liberated and occupied country at the same time,” Pelinka says, “liberated from Nazi Germany but occupied like Germany.”

And then as domestically Austria became a fully Western democracy, officially it declared its neutrality in 1955. “Internationally it was neither East nor West,” says Pelinka. “It’s a rather convenient position. No one dares touch [it]. But it’s not an active position.”

Michal Vašečka, a Slovak sociologist and professor at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic, says that this matters today because the countries that were under the Austro-Hungarian empire never “properly reconciled with Nazism, Fascism, or the results of World War II,” he says. Because of this, unlike Germany where the far-right is growing but remains on the fringes, hateful rhetoric finds more fertile ground here.

Or as Mr. Sperl puts it: “We experience again a moderate version of German nationalism and rightist populism.”

The Freedom Party under Jörg Haider surged in 1999 and became part of a governing coalition with the center-right, garnering rebuke from Brussels. Now it is surging again – at a time when many countries are grappling with a similar phenomenon and view the Freedom Party’s longevity and success as a warning sign.

While Austria’s presidential role is largely ceremonial, if the Freedom Party wins some analysts say it could lead to snap elections, which could see it become the No. 1 party. Though Hofer has had to temper his message to gain wider appeal – a sign to many that an ugly brand of politics, like in Hungary or Slovakia, will not take root here.

And some analysts say voters could forgo party loyalties to support Mr. Van der Bellen to staunch the victory of the far right. That's what happened when Jean-Marie Le Pen of France's National Front made it to the second round of presidential elections in France in 2002.

Still, history looms large for some Austrians, like Johanna and Manfred Masat, eating lunch during an Austrian food festival in Vienna’s Stadtpark on a recent sunny day.

“People in Austria are frustrated, they think [the FPÖ] can make it all better, but it is against the EU, and this is not good for Austria,” says Ms. Masat. “Austria has always been too prone to turn right,” Mr. Masat says.

This was part 3 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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