The Austrian presidential election ended in a nail-biter, with the vote coming down to a tally of absentee ballots. When everything was tallied up earlier today, the whole of the country—and undoubtedly large parts of Brussels—breathed a huge collective sigh of relief. Reuters:
The Interior Ministry count gave van der Bellen, a former Greens party leader, 50.3 percent of the vote, compared to 49.7 percent for [Norbert] Hofer [of the Freedom Party]. The margin of victory was just over 31,000 out of nearly 4.5 million valid votes cast.
Relief is one emotion to feel. Here’s another:
The FPO candidate was defeated only because almost every other force in the country allied against him. That’s an emergency measure that just barely worked, not evidence of a workable and lasting ruling coalition emerging victorious.
Some might be tempted to stick a small Russian flag next to the Freedom Party’s logo as well. As Gustav Gressel wrote last year, the connections between the party and Moscow have been apparent for some time:
After a spell in government with the Conservative Party in 2000, the FPÖ was battered by infighting leaving it with just 11.7 percent of the vote and almost bankrupt after the 2006 elections. But soon after, the party miraculously recovered and, going from being a secular nationalist party in the past, suddenly embraced Russia, Serbia and Orthodox Christianity as the main bulwark against Islamic migration and American liberalism. Since then, Russian diplomats and intelligence agents have frequently been present at FPÖ events and the party regularly invites Russian politicians and nationalist intellectuals to speak in Austria. In 2013, the party scored 20.5 percent of the vote and was able to aggressively push its agenda in public debates.
But Russian money can only explain a part of the picture. Now, a year later, the FPO is polling at around 34 percent and would presumably win parliamentary elections if they were held today. That has a lot more to do with the FPO’s unyielding stance on migrants than on any Kremlin skullduggery.
The lesson of today, then, is that this latest wave of the far-Right surge has not quite yet broken through the levee that the mainstream European parties have built up—but the levee is looking awful weak. Like with an incoming tide, a wave that breaks and then recedes will be followed by another which will often break even higher. Unless mainstream political parties across the continent can figure out a way to address the worries of a growing number of frustrated European voters, the tide will just keep on rolling in.