Austria's election campaign: Out of the frying pan into the fire

12 October 2017 – VoxEurop

Last December, many Europeans heaved a sigh of relief when what had seemed to become the first, decisive electoral success for a new wave of right-wing, nationalist populism turned into its exact opposite.

The independent Green candidate Alexander van der Bellen turned out on top in the Austrian presidential elections, which had developed into a political thriller with fundamental democratic values at stake. At the time, Vienna was sieged by international media, expecting Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), to become the first right-wing populist head of state in a Western European democracy in a long time.

It didn't happen.

And in the months to follow, neither Geert Wilders in the Netherlands nor Marine Le Pen in France managed to disturb the circles of centrist Europe.

But perhaps this was just a short respite. Austria – and Europe – could very well find itself out of the frying pan into the fire. And yet again it is Austria that is at the centre of attention.

Ahead of the Austrian parliamentary elections on Sunday, it is hard to imagine a government coalition that will not include the explicitly xenophobic and deeply anti-EU Freedom Party. And the possibility that Norbert Hofer – the losing presidential candidate – will make a comeback on the European scene as Austrian foreign minister no longer belongs to the realm of far-fetched speculation. On the contrary, it is a very realistic option.

In the last weeks, the Freedom Party has benefited from numerous scandals hitting, above all, the social democrats (SPÖ), who have in turn engaged their former coalition partner, the Christian democrats (ÖVP) in an inglorious mud fight.

At the centre of attention are two Facebook pages that under false flag, with fake news and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories aimed to discredit the leader of the ÖVP, Sebastian Kurz.

The first page, "The Truth About Sebastian Kurz", attacked the 31-year old foreign minister from the right, describing him as the lapdog of Hungarian-American financier George Soros, planning to open Europe's border to a new wave of Islamist immigrants. The fact that Kurz has actually made a name for himself as an anti-immigration hardliner and likes to take credit for having closed the so-called Balkan route is of no concern in this context. The aim of the fake postings was to lure radical voters on the right away from ÖVP.

The second page, "We For Kurz", instead posed as being run by ÖVP-supporters, but exaggerated arguments and positions in a way to make Kurz look like a hate-mongering radical. Here the aim was obviously to repel more moderate voters.

Both these Facebook pages were initiated by Tal Silberstein, hired by the social democrats to advise on the election campaign. Silberstein is a well-known, international expert on "dirty campaigning", that is to deliberately spread negative information about oppositional candidates. Or phrased differently: mudslinging using all means available and treating truth as an utterly stretchable concept.

It doesn't help that SPÖ fired Silberstein several months ago, after he was arrested in Israel over alleged money laundering. The harm had already been done, both to the party and to party leader Christian Kern, who after he was elected last year has cultivated the image of a new type of clean politician, untouched by partisan squabbling and mudslinging. The Facebook pages were operated long after the cooperation with Silberstein ended. By whom and with what money? These are questions that will most likely be answered only after the elections – in court.

Austrian political commentators have compared the intrigues and dizzying spin effects now hitting the country with the television series House of Cards. Anyone who has seen the fictional presidential couple Claire and Frank Underwood manipulate not only the interplay between the democratic and republican parties in Washington but the entire democratic system will understand what a chaotic state Austria is in at the moment.

It might be understandable that political movements who find themselves with the back against the wall want to defend themselves. And the European social democracy is undeniably such a movement: in France, the socialists have all but disappeared from the political chart, and in the recent German elections, SPD metamorphosed from a colossus supporting the state to a middle-sized party among others. It is not strange that such parties in crisis may now want to give as good as they get, returning unkindness with that very unkindness that they have been treated with.

Not only FPÖ in Austria but also AfD in Germany or Donald Trump in the US have – very successfully – been running dirty and negative campaigns, painting the opponents as, if not as the Devil then at least as unelectable.

So, psychologically it is understandable that the social democrats have listened to the siren calls. But the realization that this has consequences seems to have come too late. Now they must lie in the bed they made.

In the late 1990s, Austria played an international football match against Spain. At halftime, they were 5-0 behind. One of the Austrian players was asked how it would end.

Well, he said, we won't win big anymore.

The match ended 9-0.

That seems to be the situation for the Austrian social democrats right now. Instead of challenging its former coalition partner ÖVP for the top spot they are now fighting to retain second – and will probably lose that place as well. To the Freedom Party.

As so often when two are fighting there is a third party laughing. And the representatives of FPÖ have a hard time hiding their smiles. Having started off very aggressively in this election race you can now see how they, especially in the "confrontations" and debates that clutter the Austrian TV-schedule, literally lean back, enjoying that infamous show that neither amuses nor benefits anyone but themselves.

However, the lesson to be learned from this scandal applies far beyond the borders of Austria.

When representatives of political parties with a long and respectable democratic tradition start to abandon some of the most fundamental achievements of democratic political culture, then this will change not only these parties but the entire political landscape. That development has just as much to do with the rest of Europe as with those Austrians that will cast their votes on Sunday – or perhaps rather chose to stay at home.

"Austria is a small world, in which the big one holds its dress rehearsals," noted the playwright and poet Friedrich Hebbel already in the nineteenth century. The dirty campaign comedy now being staged in the Alpine republic could very well be turned into a European tragedy.

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