Austria and Serbia

Last Sunday’s elections are an interesting pair, made more so by the fact that Anzac Day has just focused our attention of the heritage of the First World War. Back in 1914, Austria-Hungary and Serbia were the first powers to go to war, after Serbia rejected the Austrian ultimatum that followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

That quarrel was quickly submerged in a larger struggle for European domination, and neither country emerged from the war in anything like its pre-existing shape. Austria and Hungary were separated and truncated to the small countries we know today, while Serbia (enlarged by the addition of Hungarian territory) became part of Yugoslavia, which in turn was dissolved in the 1990s.

Austria has been a stable democracy since the restoration of its independence following the Second World War. Serbia’s recent history has been much more traumatic, but it too is now building a record of democracy. It elected a new parliament on Sunday, while Austria went through the first round of electing a new president.

It’s impossible to talk about current European politics without mentioning the refugee crisis, and these two elections were no exception. But curiously, it was Serbia, on the front line in that crisis, where it seemed to have less impact.

The Serbian result was very much in line with expectations (see my preview here). The “Serbia is Winning” ticket led by the Serbian Progressive Party of prime minister Aleksandar Vucic retained its absolute majority (although it lost 27 seats), finishing with 48.2% of the vote and 131 seats. The list led by its Socialist Party ally was second with 11.0% and 29 seats.

As expected, the far-right Serbian Radical Party returned to parliament, but with a somewhat underwhelming 8.1% and 22 seats. Another (not quite so) far right force, an alliance of Dveri and the Democratic Party of Serbia, just cleared the threshold for representation, with 5.0% and 13 seats.

Three centrist or centre-left tickets had 17.1% and 45 seats between them, and five ethnic minority parties took the remaining ten seats. (Official results are here, in Serbo-Croat.)

So Serbia has voted pretty clearly to remain on the moderate, pro-European road. That’s all the more impressive because Vucic has not joined the anti-refugee bandwagon in the region, instead aligning himself with the more hospitable policies of Germany’s Angela Merkel. It’s far from conclusive, but it’s further evidence (along with the recent German state elections) that standing up to the racists can be a successful electoral strategy.

And the flip side of that lesson is Austria, where a policy of pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment led the established parties to disaster.

In the last Austrian parliamentary election, in 2013, the two traditional major parties – the Social Democrats and the People’s Party – scored a bare majority of the vote (50.8%) between them, and after some dithering re-formed their grand coalition. At the time I said they seemed “to be in a dance with death”: their co-operation in government was hurting them both electorally, but as their vote declined so did their options for breaking apart.

They’re still in government, although travelling badly in the polls. And as a desirable destination for refugees, Austria has been hit by the refugee crisis; the government has not demonised refugees to the extent of some of its neighbors, but it has imposed border controls and dissented publicly from the more liberal approach taken in Germany.

Sunday was the first round of the election for the figurehead position of president, always held in the past by a candidate supported by one of the major parties (including the controversial Kurt Waldheim in 1986-92). But this time the Social Democrats and the People’s Party could manage only fourth and fifth place, with 11.3% and 11.1% respectively.

That had been more or less predicted by the opinion polls, although it’s still pretty stunning. But the polls said that first place would be a close race between three candidates: Norbert Hofer from the far-right Freedom Party, Alexander Van der Bellen from the Greens, and centrist independent Irmgard Griss, a former president of Austria’s supreme court.

In fact it wasn’t close at all. Hofer was the runaway leader with 35.1%, almost 600,000 votes ahead of Van der Bellen, on 21.3%, whom he will now face in the runoff on 22 May. Griss came a close third with 18.9%. Hofer had a plurality in every state bar Vienna.

This isn’t quite as bad as it might look. Hofer is a relative moderate within the Freedom Party; although he has received congratulations from the likes of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, he is probably not quite in their league. And the margin in the second round won’t be anything like 14%. Van der Bellen, a highly respected veteran politician and himself the child of refugees, will rally the bulk of mainstream support, although whether it will be enough to get him past Hofer is another question.

Prior to Sunday, hypothetical polls had Van der Bellen beating Hofer reasonably comfortably in a runoff. But since they all had him at worst within a couple of points of him in the first round, it’s clear that not much confidence can be placed in that. As in most western countries, the far right is still sufficiently taboo that many of its intending voters won’t admit to the fact beforehand.

Either way, the presidency looks headed for an unwelcome degree of politicisation. Hofer has made suggestions of dissolving parliament if the government doesn’t see things his way on the refugee issue, while Van der Bellen has indicated that he would refuse to appoint a Freedom Party government even if it wins the next election, due in 2018.


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