Drinking Through the Longest Election Season
Grüner Veltliner in London
Welcome to Austria’s longest presidential election season. In May, far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer successfully challenged his razor-thin loss to independent candidate, Dr. Alexander Van Der Bellen over the handling of mail-in votes. The long-awaited do-over is on Sunday.
I’ve spent the last few months in Vienna, watching the country I was raised in fall down its own 2016 rabbit hole. Across the street from my flat, Hofer’s latest campaign posters included the Christian phrase ‘So Help Me God’, scandalously breaking the long-held taboo of mixing religion and politics with an attention-grabbing dog-whistle against Muslims (and by extension, refugees) that he couldn’t resist.
Now I’m back in London for the closing days of the campaign, drinking wine at Kipferl—a slightly overpriced Austrian café showcasing Austria’s more pleasant exports of apple strudel and cheese-laced sausages—fretting over the news out of Austria and pounding our signature crisp white wine. The international press has already decided what it means if Austria elects Europe’s first far-right head of state since World War II this weekend: it’s the next wave of a populist revolt against the global elite. Or, from the more left-leaning papers, Austria will either be a small bulwark against creeping nationalism—and illiberalism—or the next domino to fall.
The notion of rejecting elitism would be a lot more compelling if the leaders parroting this line weren’t quite so steeped in bullshit. First, there’s gold-chair enthusiast Donald Trump. Then there’s Britain’s Mr. Brexit, Nigel Farage, a privately educated former stockbroker who rarely strays from his VIP pen. France’s Marine Le Pen was spawned from an abhorrent political dynasty. And Norbert Hofer is a long-time higher-up in a party that, when it did get a shot at actual governing in the past, either went back on its populist platforms, caused some major financial corruption scandals, or praised Hitler’s employment initiatives.
But there is a slightly different brand of bullshit at work in Austria: the Freedom Party is not playing the noble outsider as much as it is trying to camouflage itself as a new mainstream center-right, with Hofer as the doe-eyed, charming salesman of its new respectability. But the party still has ties to far more unsavory right-wing groups, and it’s unlikely they’ve actually drained that swamp. Oh, and Hofer himself also happens to be a consummate liar. He seems to have invented a Muslim terrorist incident in Israel that he supposedly witnessed from 30 feet away. He said he doesn’t know anyone from Austria’s Identitarian Movement (Europe’s alt-right) nor does he want to. (So, naturally, here’s a photo of him at a ball with one of its members.) He said that each asylum seeker would cost Austrian taxpayers 277,000 euros—conveniently not mentioning that this is the cost spread over 45 years.
Then, there’s what he might do when he gets his Glock-wielding mitts on some power. The role of president in Austria is more ceremonial, but Hofer has threatened to use the office to dissolve the government—as is the president’s prerogative—if it fails to get a handle on immigration. This would bring forward the scheduled 2018 Parliamentary elections at a time that his party is still riding high in the polls from its exploitation of the refugee crisis. His party also has a not-so-secret affinity for other right-wing parties in Central and Eastern Europe. (How bad could this get? Just take a picturesque trip down the Danube to Viktor Orban’s Hungary.)
Going into the final days with polls too close to call, it feels gut-punchingly like Hofer has the momentum. A few days ago, Van Der Bellen’s campaign posted a video of a Holocaust survivor warning young Austrians that the rise of the far right, and its rhetoric, feels disturbingly familiar: just substitute Muslims for Jews. The video went viral with three million views on YouTube.
Let’s hope that’s enough.