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In the Austrian elections on September 30, the two former grand coalition parties, the Social Democratic SPÖ and the conservative ÖVP emerged with the most votes, but suffered enormous losses to the two far right parties the FPÖ and BZÖ. The BZÖ leader Jörg Haider died in a car accident two days after this article was originally published. On Tuesday 21 October the SPÖ and the ÖVP announced that they had entered talks to shape the next grand coalition.


Between the hammer and the anvil

Why Austria's far-right under Heinz-Christian Strache and the late Jörg Haider are celebrating their election triumph. By Doron Rabinovici

Austria has become the adopted home of racist populism. Almost a third of the voters in last month's elections gave their votes to extremists. Those who insisted that positions in government would tame the far right have been proved wrong. Wolfgang Schüssel [the diminutive conservative People's Party leader - ed.] for example, who so enjoyed being called the dragon slayer by his followers. No one talks about this any more. Even those who believed that Jörg Haider's Freedom Party (FPÖ) would be halved and divided in the coalition with the conservatives, now has to accept that it has doubled and strengthened. It now comes has two heads. Jörg Haider, the governor of Carinthia now leads the Alliance for Austria's Future (BZÖ); Heinz-Christian Strache is Haider's successor in the FPÖ, his revenant. Both compete over who is the original, who is the real McCoy, but both still resort to the slogans of the 90s.

Haider, the king of the provinces, defies the rule of law to discriminate against Slovenians or clamp down on foreigners. Before the elections he declared whole groups of asylum seekers to be criminals and had them packed off to another federal state, Steiermark, by night. What did it bother him that they were innocent and that there were children among them? The whole of Austria will become Carinthia if Haider has his way. Haider's kingdom is the backwater; Strache's terrain is the urban periphery. This is where he rails against immigrants. Strache, who spent his youth in a nationalist student league playing military games, and now carries Serbian-Orthodox prayer beads as a sign of his solidarity with ex-Yugoslavian ultra-nationalists against the Muslims.

Extreme-right populism made most of its gains among the youth, after the coalition lowered the voting age to 16 during the last legislative period. Forty-four percent of 16 to 19 year-olds voted for Strache's Freedom Party (here his campaign-song). These voters are certainly not all skinheads and neo-Nazis. Their programme is protest but their protest is racism. Their anger is directed against all foreigners – and the grand coalition. While the Social Democrats (SPÖ) were prepared to break every promise that got them elected 2006 in the first place, just to get their chancellor into office, the conservatives (ÖVP) begrudged their coalition partners this success. We had nothing but standstill under the Reds, the Christian Democrats explained, jammed on the brakes and called a new election in July.

In Austria, where cronyism has never been overcome and no one mentions the past, there is no culture of debate. It sometimes seems that this saturated country is still a refuge of the Counter-Reformation. The resentment towards "them up there" dates back to the Habsburgian multi-cultural Empire when it was felt against any one who was different. Karl Lueger, Vienna's Fin de Siecle mayor was a virtuoso of populist anti-Semitism. Racism has a long tradition in Austria, but it seldom turns violent. There are no such things as national liberated zones [euphemism for a fascist dominated no-go area in eastern Germany - ed.]. In the polling booth, rebellion takes place when no one else is looking, and this rebellion stands for radical opposition – as long as whatever is being protested against seems secure.

When almost every word of dissent is drowned out, nothing gets through except authoritarian protest. It's virtually impossible to grapple with content, because debate is dominated by populism and the gutter press. The Kronen newspaper and its campaigns flatten the Alpine country into bar-room cliches. Yesterday's major parties of yesteryear are making themselves small enough to squeeze in but the Freedom Party is already at home here. The Greens might as well not exist. The sort of social populism which in Germany scoops up the resentment towards the elites never got a chance to set foot in this stifling atmosphere, and the same goes for left-wing protest parties. The Communists didn't even manage to get a seat in parliament between the wars and only had a fleeting moment of success in the wake of 1945. And 1968, that hot fifteen minutes, sowed no seeds for a leftist protest tradition.

So Austria is as it always was, and I don't just mean the aging mogul Hans Dichand, co-owner of the Kronen Zeitung and its publisher Mediaprint. This master of the small format has long been leaving his mark on the entire state, pressing the population into a people's community and stamping "enemy" on individuals. In a country of eight million Austrian every day three million read a paper whose campaigns against the EU and anything foreign dictate the discourse and which, as one Viennese court ruled, classify as anti-Semitic.

In the end Austria is ruled by the mediocrity of the mediocre, and the politicians grovel. Instead of sailing against the wind they abandon the state ship to the media storm. Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and the new head of the SPÖ Werner Faymann wrote a letter to the editor in the Kronen Zeitung. In an act of sheer capitulation, they promised him to put all new EU treaties to referendum – and thereby resigned to anti-European rabble-rousing. In a nutshell, Gugenbauer and Faymann subjugated the foreign policy of their country to the ideology of the Kronen Zeitung – and they did so without consulting the federal president, the cabinet or the party. Form and content became one. Because if you want to submit every EU decision to a referendum you will feel very at home in the central organ of chauvinism.

The conservative People's Party (ÖVP), at the beginning of last year itself called for a referendum on Turkish EU accession, sensed a chance to trump the Social Democrats, and called for new elections. And by the way, it was not so long time ago that the conservatives were prepared to accept worse attacks from their Freedom Party coalition partners against Europe. The ÖVP, which presented itself as so pro-state at the start of the elections, barked with the dogs and ran with rabbits. And they didn't mince their words when it came to foreigners. The Minster of the Interior, Maria Fekter, suggested renaming certain crimes as "cultural offences" when they were committed by foreigners. But the idea of introducing a new corpus delicti for immigrants only helped the far right, not the conservatives. Social Democrats and Christian Socialists took turns propagating populist concerns to try to pull a fast one on each other. And in this process of under-bidding they both lost democratic values.

Since the Freedom Party has been in government (2000–2006), all taboos have been broken. The young voters, who were allowed to vote for the first time in these elections, were only 8 years old when, in 2000, right-wing rabble-rousing was rewarded with governmental positions. What once seemed illegitimate is now normal.

There was no talk of visions in this election campaign. Immigration, already kept to a minimum was demonised, without asking how immigration might benefit the country. The financial crisis was denied outright. Economic problems were swept under the table. New ideas on education were scarcely brought to it. Social issues were suppressed. The future was yesterday. Tomorrow was a country in the Orient from where, as election posters and gutter press screamed, nothing loomed but danger. In brief, the strategy of containing or even restraining the far right by letting them participate in government, has failed. Any one who now tries to form a coalition with both fire-starters at the same time will land between the hammer and the anvil. If the Red-Black (social-democrats/conservatives) coalition continues as if nothing happened, the populists will continue to grow and could even determine who will become the next chancellor. And don't forget there is an international depression on the horizon. If the Social Democrats and the conservatives don't co-operate, no one can help them.


This article was originally published in Die Zeit on 9 October 2008.

Doron Rabinovici (homepage) is a writer and historian. He lives in Vienna.

Translation: lp - let's talk european