The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Laura Slimani, President of the Young European Socialists.

What a relief. Whereas a large victory was predicted to the far right, a majority of Austrians refused to leave the Presidency of the Republic to the Norman Hofer. But relief must fast, very fast, give way to realisation : . the far right will not stop rising in Europe until social democrats (in power in Austria) draw some consequences out of it.

Here is is an analysis of the reasons for this debacle, which can be explained by 5 major mistakes according to me.

Mistake number 1 : Thinking that the far right will be weakened by exercising power because it will show their inefficiency

The Austrian far right, the FPÖ was founded on a mixture of nationalist and liberal values, and became openly far right under the impulse of Jorg Haider at the end of the 80s, after their first participation to a coalition. When they came back to power in a coalition together with the conservatives (ÖVP) between 2000 and 2006 one could have expected their political ideas to be discredited by proving inapplicable.

It was true at first. But the FPÖ it quickly regained strength. After a bit of internal restructuring and some grooming it became the second political force in Vienna in 2010, after the social democrats. In the parliamentary elections of 2013 it gathered 21,9% of the votes, and finally 35,1% of the votes at the second ballot of the Austrian Presidential election and 49,7% at the second ballot, an unprecedented achievement.

Contrary to what is commonly accepted, the far right’s experience in power did not weaken it on the medium term. Quite the opposite: it allowed it to normalise its speech and ideas and led it to professionalise.

Mistake number 2 : ally with the far right (!!!)

In june 2015 the SPÖ went through a deep political crisis. In the region of Burgenland, the social democrats decided to form a coalition with the FPÖ. This unprecedented decision came after the far right party raised its number of votes by 6% and the social democrats lost the same amount. Burgenland is a rural region, poorer than the rest of the country, bordering Slovenia, Hungary and Slovakia. Burgenland inhabitants were convinced by the anti-immigration and supposedly “social” discourse of FPÖ.

In spite of heated debates in the party and many personalities leaving it, Werner Faymann refused to take sanctions against this choice. It was decided that regional alliances were not to be judged at the national level, even if they involve the far right.

As a consequence, the SPÖ was quite embarrassed the morning after the second ballot of the presidential election. Indeed, how could they decently call to present the far right as a threat to Austrian democracy when they are allies at the regional level ? Voters are not that stupid.

Thus the social democrats did not officially endorse Alexander Van der Bellen, even though socialists are in coalitions with the greens in many municipalities and regions, and that they are much closer in terms of values – at least you’d think so.

Party leaders still said they would “personally” vote for him, but this attitude seriously lacked clarity and made activists very angry.

In addition, this decision added water to the mill of those in favour of an SPÖ-FPÖ coalition at the national level, if there was an opportunity after the next elections. This debate almost tore the party apart, but fortunately a majority of social democrats are still opposed to it and elected Christian Kern as new chancellor and party leader, who clearly rejects this possibility.

You would think that’s obvious but let’s say it out loud : governing with the far right is definitely not the best strategy to fight them.

Mistake number 3 : copying the far right : it does not bring anything but you can lose a lot from it

In Austria, being in power is part of the SPÖ’s DNA. Since 1945 social democrats and conservatives have largely dominated the political spectrum, most of the time in coalition. Not participating means not having a say and losing all influence in the policies which are led. But at what cost ?

The mistake of the social democrats is not to be in a coalition as such, especially in a system which makes it almost inevitable. It is not to know what for and what are the limits of this participation to government. While the social democrats are the largest political party of the country, this government initiated measures fundamentally opposed to their values. The last occurrence of this drift is the very contested legislation establishing a migratory “state of immergency”, closely inspired by Vicor Orban’ s policies in Hungary. It limits the amount of refugees hosted by Austria to 37 500 per year and allows the administration to stop asylum seekers at the border of they are not persecuted in the country they are coming through. The new legislation restricts family reunification, limits the asylum status to 3 years for Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. It also re-establishes the Brenner border with Italy, which goes against the principles of Schengen.

It was adopted together by the social democrats and the conservatives. The far right rejected it because it was not tough enough for their taste, and the greens and the liberals for the opposite reason.

To sum up, this political manoeuvre generated no political gain for the social democrats. That is without taking into account the disastrous consequences these new rules have on refugees themselves. The irony is that it was adopted the day after the first ballot of the Presidential election, where the very parties in favour of the law gathered barely 22% together.

This is an extreme example of a coalition which did not bring social democrats to compromise but to being compromised, to no electoral gain. It has given voters one last reason to put social democrats and conservatives on the same shelve. They are seen as part and perpetuators of the same system.

By forgetting one has to set limits, one may well losing its soul and its voters.

Mistake number 4 : believing that there cannot be an alternative political offer on the left

What a shock after the first ballot. While SPÖ and ÖVP have been dominating Austrian politics ever since 1945, they have respectively gathered 11% and 12% of the voters. It is a snub for both of these parties, which have been in power together since 2008. Maybe even more for social-democrats as the outgoing President belonged to this political family. But perhaps even more surprising is the fantastic breakthrough of the green candidate, who obtained 21% of the votes in the first ballot. A few weeks ago, no one would have imagined that Europe would know for the first time a green President. Between both rounds many argued that Hofer would win – so did the polls – even more certainly as its opponent was not from a classical background. They were wrong.

This incredible story puts one idea to rest: nothing guarantees that the main party of the left wing will remain the same forever, and that it can even change very quickly. After Greece, Spain, Scotland or Croatia, these elections once more show that left wing forces perceived as outsiders can succeed when voters are disappointed in the traditional left wing party, most of the time social democrats.

The green candidate is the only one who assumed a progressive vision of the issue of refugees, which focused most of the attention during the campaign. While the SPÖ spoke first in favour of openness and then made a U-Turn with the migratory law, the greens constantly asserted their attachment to a policy respectful of human rights, wealth distribution and respect of the environment. These ideas have quite obviously appealed to social democratic voters who did not find them in their party any longer.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so do politics.

Mistake number 5 : not listening to one’s youth organisation

The Young Socialists of Austria are a remarkable movement. They constantly remind SPÖ its promises and its values but are also formidable field activists when there is a fight against the right and the far right.

In june 2015, during the internal debates about the SPÖ-FPÖ coalition in Burgenland, they have been the first ones to reject this counter nature alliance, and to require sanctions be taken against those compromised in it.

They loudly protested against the migration law side by side with Human rights NGOs. During the massive refugees arrival in the spring of 2015, they picked up refugees on the other side of the border, volunteered to host refugees in their homes, welcomed them in stations with food and blankets. In October 2015 they enabled the SPÖ-Green coalition to stay in place in Vienna.

SJÖ activists argued in favour of a common candidacy of the left behind Alexander Van der Bellen in the first place. They did not succeed. Considering that the socialist candidate’s candidacy was an obstacle to the left wing reaching the second ballot, they decided not to support him. Many campaign for Van der Bellen in the first round already, thinking he was the best candidate to beat the far right with progressive values.

Their perspicacity honours them. But since their input is not valued by their party the way it should be, it was useless. Their party would be well advised to listen to them more attentively next time.

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