The two political parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats who have ruled Austria since the end of the Allied occupation after 1945 were eliminated in the first round of voting.
The score of the Freedom Party was the highest among the right-wing nationalist parties of Europe. The rise of the “reductionists” would be a more accurate term than “nationalist” for the “reductionists” stress an ever reduced number of ideas for ever-smaller territories.
There was once a Yugoslav nationalism with an ideology that it hoped other countries would follow. Now we have a nationalism of Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo and company which can have an appeal to one who is not an ethnic Serb, Croat etc. Hofer has had some pan-German history, having belonged to a student group with the motto “Honour, Freedom, Fatherland”, but pan-Germanism among Austrians is not an ideology of the present, while anti-refugee sentiment has a strong pull.
Some in the Freedom Party tried to play on Van der Bellen’s name as not really Austrian. The Van der Bellen family were Dutch Protestants who had been encouraged to settle new lands in Russia in the 18th century. They became prosperous land owners, socially part of the aristocracy but never with a title. They left Russia at the time of the 1917 Revolution and ended up in rural Austria where Van der Bellen was born in 1944.
Other than an interest in 19th century Russian literature, Van der Bellen’s intellectual and political interests have always been turned to Western Europe. He has not made proposals concerning economic relations with Russia or beyond to Central Asia and China. Hofer has played on anti-European Union sentiment.
“We don’t want to be pushed around by the European Commission rules” he said, but his economic platform was largely empty.
Rather his drawing card was a fear of refugees and asylum seekers. His speeches had more than a few anti-Islamic overtones.
Many in Europe have been watching closely Austrian elections closely for what they may hold for the EU referendum in Britain and the role that right-wing anti-EU parties may have in other European countries, especially those of Eastern Europe. Van der Bellen made a “We must all work together” plea in his victory statement − a common enough political theme, but in the Austrian case a realistic need. Hofer is young enough that he is unlikely to disappear from the Austrian political scene.
Austria is relatively stable both economically and politically so that references to the 1930s are not valid. However, we need to watch events carefully. Van der Bellen is the first President of a European country from a Green Party. We will have to see if the cosmopolitan values of Green Party platforms will have a new champion.
René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.