Democracy by fear

Dr. Alexander van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer
Dr. Alexander van der Bellen (L), who was supported by the Green Party, narrowly beat Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party in Austria’s presidential runoff election (source: dpa)

The President of Austria is elected directly by the people. Normally, the vote draws little attention because the president’s role is mainly ceremonial. It was also an office that the People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party had maneuvered for years to hold for themselves. Austria’s present government is a coalition between these two parties, which have ruled the country for most of the past 70 years.

This year’s election showed, however, that Austrians are fed up with the manipulating and exclusive collaboration of the established parties. In the first round of the election, Norbert Hofer won the largest share of the vote, at 35 percent. Mr. Hofer is a member of the Freedom Party, which the political establishment has labeled right-wing and populist. Dr. Alexander van der Bellen, who was supported by the Green Party, took second place with some 21 percent. The candidates from the two main parties won about 11 percent of the vote each.

On May 22, the runoff election between the two leaders was held. Europe’s entire political establishment expressed close to hysterical concern that Mr. Hofer could win. Many argued that the electorate’s strong support for him was due to fear of refugees and xenophobia. Fear of refugees played a role, but it was mostly a lack of trust in the country’s established parties. This trust deficit also exists in most other European countries. Democracy appears to be reduced to one day of voting every few years.

To the European political establishment’s great relief, Dr. van der Bellen won the runoff by a tiny margin of about 0.6 percentage points. Is this really the success of democracy that many European leaders have called it?

Democracy appears to be reduced to one day of voting every few years

Justified or not, Mr. Hofer was subjected to a witch hunt. The electorate was threatened with ominous “consequences” of a “right-wing populist” as head of state. It was a real campaign of fear.

If we analyze the results objectively, we can glean the following: Voter turnout was high, at more than 70 percent. Mr. Hofer received about half of the vote, almost all of which came from those who genuinely supported his candidacy. However, it is likely that most of the people who voted for Dr. van der Bellen did not necessarily want him to be president, but instead were motivated by the campaign of fear against Mr. Hofer.

Though Dr. van der Bellen won, Mr. Hofer probably had stronger support. That does not mean that half of Austrians are xenophobic or radical. They just lost trust in their government.

Let’s face it. In principle, most political parties in Europe have already become populist. Unfortunately, the established parties have not had a great record over the past 10 or 15 years. The Austrian presidential election was only a reflection of this Europe-wide state of affairs.

It is doubtful that the process of marginalizing rising political movements lends any credibility to parliamentary democracy. Austria has now elected a president based on vague fears, rather than on voters’ convictions.

The “democracy by fear” that is now taking hold throughout Europe will finally degenerate into full-blown populism. It will result in the final demise of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – through no one’s fault but their own. We can only hope that by the time that happens, these groups will not also have destroyed freedom, rule of law and democracy.

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