Don't Blame the Refugees for President Hofer, Blame Austria's (Formerly) Big Parties!

2016-05-13-1463101132-2786478-FLAGGEZEIGENNEU.png (election poster of Norbert Hofer: "Show the Flag! Love, Freedom, Love of the Homeland)

Barring what looks increasingly like a miracle, Austria will elect a far right president this Sunday. This time around it is not just someone with a far right past, like Kurt Waldheim, but a current member of a far right party, Norbert Hofer, of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ).

The Austrian presidency is not very powerful, but it is not a purely ceremonial position either. Most importantly, the president can dismiss the federal government. While this power has not been used in the postwar period, Hofer has already said he would use it under a variety of different conditions.

The recent polls will make him even more eager to find a reason: his FPÖ has about one-third of the vote, far ahead of the traditional two "big" parties - the social democratic SPÖ and the conservative ÖVP - which have been reduced to a mere 20 percent each. In other words, by the end of this year Austria might have both a far right President and a far right Prime Minister!

Most analysts will argue that the far right success is a (logical) consequence of the "refugee crisis," further fueling the myth that immigration automatically leads to anti-immigrant sentiments and far right electoral success. But there is nothing automatic about it. Just look at Canada, which has one of the highest levels of immigration of all western democracies, and willingly took in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. But, rather than seeing a far right backlash, it sees thousands of Canadians line up to sponsor (more) Syrian refugees!

Moreover, the rise of the FPÖ predates the "refugee crisis" by many decades. Let's not forget that the party gained almost 30 percent of the vote in 1999, before entering the government as a junior partner, and splitting as a consequence of internal struggles. It was battling for first position in polls already in 2014, well before refugees became perceived as a "crisis" in Europe. The "refugee crisis" has been at best a catalyst, boosting the support of the FPÖ, while at the same time absolutely destroying that of the two governmental parties.

The reason for both processes is the incompetent and opportunistic behavior of the two mainstream parties. First and foremost, they completely mishandled the refugee situation. After German Chancellor Angela Merkel had come out in support of the refugees, calling for a Willkommenkultur (welcome culture), the Austrian government joined in. Prime Minister Werner Faymann (SPÖ) even heavily criticizing Merkel's nemesis, Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán, likening Orbán's anti-refugee policies to Nazi deportations of Jews - a preposterous analogy, obviously.

But as Austria struggled logistically with the sharp increase in refugees, anti-refugee sentiments in the media and public grew, and the Austrian government radically changed opinion. Against international pressure and obligations they closed Austria's borders, suspending Schengen, and introduced a daily quota of refugees. Faymann even openly criticized Merkel's open door policy, stating that Austria is not Germany's "waiting room."

Not surprisingly, rather than regaining the trust of the people, the government policies intensified public frustration. The complete turnaround only strengthened the impression that the government parties were out of their depth and that the FPÖ had been right all along that this was indeed a refugee "crisis." Both SPÖ and ÖVP got hammered in the first round of the presidential elections: their candidates gained 11.3 percent (SPÖ) and 11.1 percent (ÖVP), respectively. In previous presidential elections their candidates would get a combined 80 percent or more!

Yet, nothing was lost yet. Although Hofer won the first round of the presidential elections convincingly, with 35 percent of the vote, he was still far away from a majority. If the liberal democratic forces would rally around Alexander van der Bellen, the nominally independent Green politician who came second with 21 percent, the second round would see the broadly anticipated FPÖ defeat. After all, this had happened before in France, for example, when Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002.

Surely the SPÖ would endorse Van der Bellen, an establishment Green who is so moderate that he could almost be a social democrat. But they didn't. And neither did the ÖVP. While several individual SPÖ and ÖVP politicians have endorsed Van der Bellen, the two parties have not. There can be only one reason for this embarrassing reluctance: both parties are flirting with the FPÖ to form a coalition government after the next parliamentary elections, slated for next year - if President Hofer will not force an earlier election.

But it wasn't just opportunism. Political incompetence also plays a role. Faymann resigned as premier earlier this week. While the decision makes some sense, the timing does not. By resigning in between the first and second round of the presidential elections, he only strengthened Hofer. After all, the resignation is universally seen as a consequence of the "refugee crisis," and the far right backlash, showing everyone critical of the government that voting for the FPÖ provides direct results!

The latest polls have Hofer at (roughly) 53 percent and Van der Bellen at 47 percent. Given that the polls were hugely underestimating Hofer's support in the first round, by some ten percent (!), this seems like a run race. Hence, illiberal democracy will be extending its reach even further within Central Europe, having grown from Hungary to Poland to Austria (and possibly Croatia). It will no longer be just an East Central European issue, to be defined away by "post-communism" and other increasingly dated explanations.

How many more countries must embrace illiberal democracy before the established parties and political groups of the European Union give up on their opportunistic policy of alleged containment and face this most fundamental challenge to "the European Project" since the end of the Second World War? Or have they given up on the project themselves and are they truly just holding on to power, however little remains of it? With elections scheduled in France and the Netherlands next year, time is running out.