Categorized | Europe, European Union, Germany, World

The Renaissance of Right-Wing Populism: Learning from the Case of Austria

Hofburg in Wien

Image by Peter Gerstbach

Many parts of Europe currently face a renaissance of the xenophobic political right. Thus, it is certainly no coincidence that in a recent issue of the “New Statesman” Rowan Williams reminds us that “the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power” may not be so far away from liberal democracies as their inhabitants assume. Echoing Hannah Arendt, Williams concludes with the warning that “for evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking”.

There is certainly more than a grain of truth in this piece: In democracies, the inability or unwillingness to think and judge critically can all too easily pave the way for the success of dangerous populists. What is often overlooked, however, is that the political left is not immune to the lure of simplistic ideologies and deceiving moral certainties. A closer look at the current situation in Austria teaches valuable lessons of how not to respond to the renewed popularity of the right.

Since its re-establishment as a sovereign state in 1955, Austria has been politically dominated by the Social Democratic Party and the Conservative Party. At the same time, however, the country remained fertile ground for right-wing ideologues. Arguably the most talented of these figures was Jörg Haider, who led his Freedom Party to a major success in the 1999 parliamentary elections and negotiated its participation in the government, sparking strong international criticism. There is also a committed political left represented by the Green Party that preaches a political and moral cosmopolitanism by emphasising the importance of open borders, global solidarity and a rejection of nationalism. While this is, of course, a broad generalisation, it is safe to say that Austria`s political left consists of the well-educated, urban stratum of society which presents itself as open-minded, democratic and tolerant.

The first round of last month’s presidential election ended with a sweeping success for the candidate of the Freedom Party over his only serious opponent – the more intellectual and measured candidate of the Greens.1 In response, some on the left utilised statistics which analysed the electoral behaviour of Austrians in relation to their education to generate a narrative of the “educated” versus the “uneducated” voters  – the gist of this analysis being that voters with a lower level of education tended to vote for the right-wing candidate, while “educated” voters preferred the candidate of the Greens. This readiness of left-wing parties to explain away the undesired outcome of the election on the basis of the supposed illiteracy and ignorance of the voters reveal both an unwillingness to accept the democratic result of the first round of voting and their refusal to address their own political shortcomings.

The shrillness of the political left and the widening gap between its self-defined maxims and its actual behaviour became even more apparent in the days after the first round of voting. The signpost outside a Viennese Café, barring the 35% who voted for the right-wing candidate, garnered huge public attention. However, the most illuminating insights into the mind-set of the left, came from a Facebook post of Thomas Glavinic, a prominent Austrian novelist. Here Glavinic criticised the assumed moral superiority of many on the left; in response, various commentators accused the author of defending right-wing positions, of contributing to increased polarisation in Austrian society or of being a hypocrite. What is almost impossible to detect in these counterattacks, however, is a proper engagement with Glavinic`s comments, let alone a hint of self-criticism. Fortunately, the story of Austria`s presidential election came to a satisfactory conclusion: In the run-off on 23 May, Alexander van der Bellen, the left-wing candidate, was able to fend off the challenge of his far-right opponent; eventually, the two candidates were separated by just 31000 votes out of more than 4.6 million votes cast. Nevertheless, this episode lays bare one of the major underlying weaknesses of the concept of democracy.

The ever looming dark shadow of populism is by definition the price we have to pay for the amenities and inclusiveness of a democratic system. Right-wing parties, it seems, are in a particularly comfortable position to exploit this weakness because they often propose simplistic solutions to complex problems. Hannah Arendt once brilliantly explained this phenomenon by observing that people tend to vote for the most average politician rather than for the ablest because they vote who they can best identify with.2 Therefore, the danger of populism is so central to the concept of democracy that it can never be completely eradicated and must never be denied or forgotten. The perennial question, in other words, of how to manage the balancing act of enjoying the advantages of a democratic system while, at the same time, taming its underlying risks, can never be solved definitively and has to be addressed time and time again. What is clear is that the answer cannot be to demonise, stigmatise or ridicule competing political opinions; rather, we must engage in an open dialogue that attempts to fuse horizons and celebrates rather than suffocates the plurality of opinions within the boundaries of law. Admittedly, this might sometimes be a tedious and exhausting exercise; yet it is the only viable strategy in dealing with dangerous populists. The recent success of parties like “Golden Dawn” in Greece or “Alternative für Deutschland” in Germany demonstrates that the stakes are extremely high. Arendt would probably have said that nothing less than “the world is at stake”3.

Image: courtesy of Peter Gerstbach

  1. Austrian constitutional law stipulates, however, that if no candidate receives an absolute majority of votes cast in the first round of the election, then a second ballot occurs in which only those two candidates who received the greatest number of votes in the first round may stand. Thus, a run-off became necessary.
  2. Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Little Rock in Hannah Arendt and Peter Baehr (ed.) (2000), The Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin Classics, New York), p.237.
  3. Hannah Arendt and Jerome Kohn (ed.) (2006), Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (Penguin, New York), p. 156.

About Christof Royer

Christof is currently studying for an MLitt in International Political Theory at St Andrews University. He holds a law degree (Magister juris) from the University of Vienna and an LL.M degree from the University of Reading (UK). Before coming to St Andrews he practised Austrian Citizenship Law in Vienna and was an intern for UNHCR. Christof is particularly interested in humanitarian intervention (especially R2P), issues of world order, international law, political theory and the thought of Hannah Arendt.

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