by Erik Tillman

Alexander Van der Bellen has narrowly defeated Norbert Hofer in the 2nd round of Austria’s presidential election.

This election result was a ‘first’ in two respects. What attracted the most international media attention was the fact that the candidate of a radical-right party (the Freedom Party of Austria, FPÖ by its German initials) won the first round with 35% of the vote and nearly gained a majority in the second round. This was an unprecedented level of success for a radical-right politician in a national election in contemporary Western Europe.

The second, less noted, new development in this election is that Van der Bellen’s victory was a first for a member of a West European Green party in a national election. In terms of both candidates’ results, this election was historic. Though the Austrian presidency is mostly ceremonial, it is nonetheless significant that it will be held by a pro-EU Green (and it certainly would have been viewed as significant had Hofer won).

With that said, the big news for many is the Hofer’s electoral success, even in defeat. Austrians will election a new parliament in 2017, and the FPÖ will be optimistic about winning those. Public opinion polls in 2016 have consistently shown FPÖ as the largest party with above 30% support, so Hofer’s 35% share of the first-round presidential vote may be reasonably predictive. If that result holds true, then it will be very difficult for a new government to form without FPÖ.

These results tell us something about the evolving nature of politics in Austria, and Western Europe more generally. The traditional center-left and center-right parties, which represent older socio-economic class cleavages, fared poorly. Instead, the candidates offering the clearest choices on Austria’s policies towards immigration, multiculturalism, and the European Union were more successful. With that said, there is a clear Austrian dimension to Hofer’s success: FPÖ (and, to an extent, Green Party) support has risen at least in part due to the long pattern of ‘grand coalition’ governments between Austria’s mainstream center-left and center-right parties.

The patterns of voting reveal a lot about this new divide. Van der Bellen, who is pro-EU and cosmopolitan in his outlook, received a large share of votes from university-educated, female, and urban voters. Hofer, who is nationalist and anti-EU, received more votes from less-educated, older, male, and rural voters. These patterns are consistent with those from other Western European countries (and from the United States, when one examines support for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy). The core of radical right support in Western Europe are those voters who feel ‘left behind’ by the social changes driven by immigration and European integration. By offering a clear message opposing these changes, radical right parties have succeeded at attracting voters who feel threatened that the old social order is disintegrating. Many of these voters may have supported social democratic parties in past decades. In addition to these broader social changes, recent events—the refugee crisis and terror attacks in Western Europe—have drawn voters who are anxious about security and defending the national community to the radical right.

It is less certain how one should interpret Van der Bellen’s victory. The standard interpretation would be that he benefited from a large anti-Hofer effect. In past cases where radical right candidates have made it to run-off elections, they have faced mainstream (typically center-right) opponents. In those cases, mainstream voters have rallied around that opponent in the run-off election, producing a big electoral victory. The most recent illustration of that trend came in France’s 2015 regional elections. Prior to the run-off election, it was unclear whether Van der Bellen would benefit from this rallying trend, as mainstream voters might find a Green candidate to be equally extreme and unacceptable as a radical-right candidate.

Van der Bellen gained a substantial majority of those mainstream votes (plus some non-voters from the first round) to overturn the 35% to 21% deficit he faced after the first round. Did he gain those votes simply because he was the ‘lesser of two evils’? Or did his strongly pro-EU and cosmopolitan positions actually resonate with mainstream voters, particularly on the center-left?

This should be a pressing question for center-left parties, which are struggling across Western Europe. Much of their struggle is rooted in an inability to offer a coherent response to Europe’s ongoing challenges: the financial crisis, economic stagnation resulting from austerity, and the refugee crisis. One response, typified by Austrian Chancellor (and member of the Socialist Party of Austria) Christian Kern’s announcement today to take tougher measures on immigration and security, is to pursue moderated versions of the policies that radical-right parties endorse. In doing so, they hope to blunt the appeal of the radical right, but these efforts may backfire by legitimating radical-right policy demands in the eyes of voters—who may prefer the ‘real thing’ to a watered-down version. Center-left parties would be wiser to offer a clear alternative to the radical right, and a Green candidate’s victory may have offered them a template for how to do that.

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