The rise of the right in Austria could be a political tipping point

The rise of the right in Austria could be a political tipping point
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On October 2nd, a presidential election in Austria could mark the tipping point of changing political tides in Europe and usher in a cycle of right-wing politics.

Earlier this month, Austria’s Constitutional Court ruled that the results of May’s presidential runoff election were overturned. The Court referred to irregularities in vote counting, which necessitated a re-run. With immigration quickly becoming one of the most important issues for European states, this election could set the precedent for upcoming elections in Europe.

Having previously lost by a mere 0.6 percent, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party stands a good chance of becoming the first far-right head of state in the European Union. What to expect from a Western democracy led by a far-right president in the 21st century?

Democracy enables the rise of the right

While the recent Brexit was a clear example of a right-wing outcome to a democratic election, the upcoming Austrian election may be the tipping point towards a European rightist era. Politics run in cycles, and the previous cycle of left-leaning governments in Europe and the Americas appear to be coming to an end. Fears of immigration, underperforming economies, and a growing sense of disillusion with international governmental organisations is taking hold. With national elections scheduled throughout this year and the next, the political scene may begin to portray new priorities among the populaces.

This will not be a top-down hostile take-over by right-wing party leaders. As Brexit showed, the push came from an active voter bloc. The same will hold true for Austria’s election in October.

The Constitutional Court’s decision to hold a repeat of the presidential election is widely regarded as the right decision from a legal point of view. This type of repeat election is unprecedented in Western democracies, but when the court found that 14 out of 20 of the constituencies under investigation had irregularities in vote-counting, it was clear that the results of the May election were compromised. The fact that the election was decided by 30,863 votes demonstrates that any claim of vote irregularities had to be taken seriously by the court, or risk allowing a failure of democracy.

The Constitutional Court did its duty by calling for a repeat election, even as it assured Austria another round of contested presidential elections. Democracy, it can be said, was served as the judicial branch of government worked to guarantee a third opportunity for the Austrian people to be heard.

While many observers worry that this third round will favor Mr. Hofer, it is difficult to say that this advantage was won in an undemocratic manner. As Brexit shows, while the result may not be what was expected or favoured, it is what the voters wanted. The tides are turning in Europe, and that is all a supporter of democracy today may ask for.

Will the far-right damage democracy?

Serious concerns exist that far-right politicians elected to positions of leadership will damage the democratic institutions, which brought them to power. This would run counter to claims that democracy begets more democracy, but it is not unprecedented.

In Europe, a safety net exists in the high level of interconnectedness amongst states. There is a general sense that should a government step too far, the European Union will intercede at some point. This can be seen in Poland currently, and this is likely to continue should a far-right party come to power in any European state. While by no means a guarantee, it is probable that the election of a far-right leader would not lead to a decrease in democratic freedoms among the populace, due to this safety net.

Domestic politics are increasingly important as globalisation brings the world closer together. Austria’s upcoming election, no matter the outcome, will be projected onto future elections, particularly the US presidential election in November. The growing trend towards right-wing policies may be a temporary blip on the political radar, or it may be the beginning of a new political cycle.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

B. Blythe Brady

Blythe Brady specializes in international organizations and conflict management and negotiations. She graduated from DePaul University, where she studied political science and economics. She received her Master's from Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations. She has worked at the European Parliament in Brussels and the New York Peace Institute.