We are in the months December, in the time of year when many, although the majority of them not honestly, like to speak about the “light form Bethlehem”. At the same time they are closing their eyes in order not to see the flames engulfing shelters meant for desperate people from the Middle East and from Africa who are fleeing wars and poverty and seeking refuge in Europe. They are erecting wires and walls along their borders to stop those desperate people (who are all of a sudden not “our closest”, as the Pope sees them, but “others and different from us”). And exactly in this month of December A.D. 2016. in the darkness of Europe falling into the abyss of xenophobia, intolerance, radical nationalism, very often combined with clericalism, a stream of light appeared. This light did not come from Bethlehem. It came from Austria.
The presidential elections in this small European country which became suddenly - because of the result – very important, were won by the former leader of the Green party, Alexander van der Bellen with more that 50% of the votes casted. Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the rightist lost. What preceded Van der Bellens victory is an almost one year long process. In the first round he did not get more than 50% of the votes, so there was a second round. He won, tightly, with only 31.000 votes more than Hofer. The rightists played on the card of some formal irregularities in handling the votes sent per post, demanding that the voting be repeated. And something unexpected, but perhaps symptomatic for Europe as it is today, happened. The Supreme court proclaimed the whole voting process as being corrupted (that means not only in districts where the irregularities were established). New elections were scheduled for September, but then unexpected problems with the envelopes for the votes which will be sent per post occurred (they opened sometimes without any help). So, the elections were postponed again till the end of the year.
During all these month’s election campaign, the battle between the ex-chief of the Green party (who is a typical candidate of the centre, not of the left) and Hofer who was backed by the Liberal party of the late Joerg Heider, was continuing, sometimes intensively, sometimes in a low tone. But, it never stopped. The mere fact that somebody is the candidate of a party which was in the past led by Heider, whose sympathies for the Third Reich were not a secret, would have been enough to alert the people. Putting aside the fact that the political landscape of Austria significantly changed. In the past, in the times of the socialist chancellor Vranitzky it was a political axiom that the Liberals are not and will not be a coalition partner, regardless of everything. In the meantime the Liberals, without changing basically their character, became first accepted as coalition partners to grow – now, according to the public opinion surveys – stronger that the two traditional parties, the Socialists and the Peoples party (conservatives). Both these parties proved unable to produce a candidate, not to speak about a leader, who would attract the voters.
The Austrians got obviously fed up with the 2-party system they had for decades (although there were, formally speaking, many political parties). They were looking for a “third option”, and found it in the Heiders party, a right wing party favouring the closure of national borders, not friendly towards foreigners, skeptical, to put it mildly, in regards to the unified Europe and its basic values. This attitude exposed Hofer after the first round of the presidential elections as somebody who is in the focus of the public interest, although some of his statements were questionable and some even frightening. He did try to make his political statements sound more reasonable, becoming at the same time rhetorically more and more hostile to Van der Bellen. Only two days before the December elections – which he will lose – he told Van der Bellen in a television debate: “You were nothing”, trying to accentuate that, in contrast to him, the 72-vear old economy professor has no clear cut positions. Alas, this is not true, but who is interested in truth in politics anymore – globally? Luckily populism and demagogy were not approved by the voters. Austrian voters now see clearly and although they are still inclined to give the Liberal party a significant role on the political scene, they did not want the candidate of this party as head of state. Their message was very clear, although all previous public opinion surveys predicted a “dead race”. If somebody sees here a parallel to the US presidential elections, we will not object.
So, to be a little bit pathetic, Austria found its sole again. But, presidential elections in Austria were important not only in Austria. More than 700 reporters from all over the world came to Vienna to send the word if “Austria silently fell”, or if the small member of the EU (but not of NATO) understood where is its place and what can be its only future. These elections were, and they were viewed as such, a signal where to is Western Europe going, Western Europe pressured by the even more aggressive and more radical nationalists from the East of the Old continent and burdened by its own disability to cope with “domestic” nationalism, necessarily based on intolerance, closing in its own ranks, in the ranks of those who are “as we are” and to a distanced position towards the European project. All predictions said that again a rightist populist will win, which would have been immensely important having in mind the presidential elections in France and parliamentary elections in Germany next year.
Austria proved that it has not to be that way that the time of reactionaries is not irreversible, despite the fact that they are hammering with iron hand on our doors. First commentaries after the Austrian elections show one more interesting thing, indicating to what extent both the political system and the main-stream media are prisoners of the picture of the world they created and they would want to turn into reality. They simply cannot forget their “love” for Hillary Clinton, portraying her, without any reason, as being left, and describing Trump, with some reason, bet not enough real evidence, as being only populist, while the European supporters of the hard course towards Russia (the US policy as it was until now) still see his proclaimed goal to put the American-Russian relations on the normal track again, as his main “sin”. In this context Van der Bellens victory is interpreted as the defeat of the policy Trump was born from. This is both not true and oversimplified. And one more detail, Austrian elections helped to make visible. Russia, pressured both by the US and the EU very pragmatically, but forgetting some principles, is courting the rightist in Europe (while they are doing the same in regard to Russia). The rightist in Western Europe are for sure not close to Russia ideologically, but being the front raw of the financial circles they favour the abandoning of sanctions against Russia. For the Russian President, for the time being, even this is enough. These elements should have been pointed out in order to have a complete picture.
Let us conclude in the way, typical for December: in Austria the first candle on the Christmas tree was lit. Would the whole tree be lit until the end of next year, stopping the fall f the Old continent into the darkness of blind nationalism, which is negating the very idea of European unification, remains to be seen.
Author is a Croatian journalist, who served as foreign policy advisor to former Croatian President Stjepan Mesić (2000 – 2010)
Ljubljana, December 11, 2016