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More on the Austrian election results

Posted by Helen Thursday, October 02, 2008 , , , ,


Today's Wall Street Journal Europe, a newspaper, I am sorry to say, that is infinitely superior to any British one, largely because it opens up its Opinion pages to many writers instead of having a rota of hacks, carries an article by an Austrian journalist, Christian Ortner [Wiki entry is in German but easy to read].

Under the title "Austria's Unreconstructed Welfarists" he has an interesting slant on the election result that, once again, seems to have shocked the great and the good in Europe. Curiously enough, we never hear anything about unreconstructed Communists coming to power or, possibly, holding the balance of power as they might well do in parts of Germany.

To be fair to Herr Ortner, he dismisses the idea that the two right-wing parties are somehow neo-Nazis. Nor does he hold much truck with the notion that somehow or other the old Nazis have miraculously survived in Austria and are threatening to come to power again.

Because the Freedom Party and Mr Haider's Alliance for Austria together garnered almost 30 percent of the votes, thus becoming as large as the Social Democrats, left and left-liberal politicians and media are once again sounding hysterical Nazi alarms. The Vienna magasine "Profil" ran the headline "Sieg ...", as though the German Wehrmacht had just conquered Paris.

The socialist mayor of Vienna, Michael Häupl, even warns of a "neofascist" threat.

But the diagnosis that Austria has shifted to the right falls short. It's true that the FPÖ and BZÖ exhibit the problematic characteristics of right-wing extremist parties: They appeal to xenophobic institncts, tend towards economic isolationism, preach a ridiculous brand of nationalism and of course consider the European Union to be the source of evil.

Mr Strache, especially, has tried with all his might to play Austrians and foreigners off one another. While warning of Muslims at home, Mr Strache defends the mullahs in Tehran - who want to wipe Israel off the map - against economic sanctions.

And yet neither Mr Haider nor Mr Strache owes his electoral victory primarily to these traditional ingredients of right-wing politics.

The two parties won the election because they behave like Oskar Lafontaine's "Left Party" in germany. To an electorate deeply unsettled by gloalization, rising inflation and the financial crisis that escalated in the weeks just before the election, they promised a strong state that would drop money from helicopters. Cheap gas from government gas stations, price ceilings for the oil industry, free university education, a check from the state to compensate for inflation, a perceptible rise in pensions - these and many other bribes were the bait used by Messrs Haider and Strache to gain votes.

Both right-wing populist parties thus successfully adapted to their clientele's needs. In the past , they were more "national" than socialist, but today they act more "socialist" than national". Incorrigible old Nazis are no longer their primary target group - they're dying out. Instead, they have fought successfully to recruit modernization's losers, in whose eyes the Social Democrats have made too many concessions to the necessities of a globalized world. Both the BZÖ and the FPÖ have therefore sought to overtake the SPÖ from the left.
Setting aside Herr Strache's ideas on foreign policy, which may be completely whacky, there is a great deal here that needs to be taken into account, not least by Herr Ortner himself.

Why, precisely, is he so surprised that the the extreme right-wing shows itself to be similar to the extreme left-wing? Has that not always been the case? Both sides are believers in the state solution to everything, in protectionism and, if necessary, economic isolationism. In fact, it is not just the extreme left-wing that believes that but also the more moderate groups.

The European Union, after all, clearly rather liked and admired by Herr Ortner, preaches a modified version of that, as the same newspaper discusses in another article today, one that is devoted to the issue of anti-dumping rules on imported shoes. After all, what is the much vaunted "European social model" but unreconstructed welfarism based on the assumption that money can be dropped from helicopters?

Immigration is rather a difficult issue in Austria, with many problems on all sides (the home team not behaving as well as it should in refusing to grant citizenship to people who have lived, worked and paid taxes in the country for many years). There is a strong feeling that the political consensus has avoided discussing that as well as many other issues and what we have seen is a rebellion against that consensus on the part of the people of Austria, something that Herr Ortner prefers to ignore.

He does, however, point out that, realizing the way voting was likely to go, the Socialist Party tried to undermine the two right-wing ones by espousing many of their policies thus, one assumes, encouraging more people to vote for Herr Haider and Herr Strache's parties.
The Social Democratic party made a significant contribution to the success of the BZÖ and FPÖ. When the SPÖ polled just over 20 percent in June, it spectacularly revised its heretofore constructive attitude toward the EU and demanded that referendums be held on future union treaties, just as EU skeptics Haider and Strache had been preaching.
Setting aside, once again, the rather dubious euroscepticism of the two right-wing leaders (Herr Haider changes his mind on that even more frequently than he founds new parties) we can see why the people of Austria might feel just a bit frustrated politically.

It seems that in order to be a respectable political party you should have a "constructive attitude toward the EU", which means not bothering to ask the people whether they want to have their country integrated even further into that particular political structure. Really, it is a little surprising that only 30 percent voted for the two right-wing parties.