A nailbiter in Austria

Austria voted on Sunday in the second round of its presidential election (see my report on the first round here), but it wasn’t until last night, when postal votes were counted, that it was possible to declare a result. Alexander Van der Bellen, nominally independent but backed by the Greens (and a former Greens leader), just squeaked in with 50.3% of the vote against Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party.

That was an uncomfortably close margin of about 31,000 votes in four and a half million. The opinion polls, which were horribly wrong in the first round, for some reason were able to do much better in the runoff, correctly predicting a close result. Turnout was 72.7%, up from 68.5% in the first round and just 53.6% in 2010 (official results here).

Still, a win is a win. Van der Bellen trailed Hofer by nearly 600,000 votes in the first round, or almost 14%, so he made up a lot of ground. Mainstream centre and centre-left voters clearly rallied to the Greens.

On the other hand, Hofer didn’t stay still. He picked up more than 700,000 votes, or about 14.6 percentage points, between the two rounds. It looks as if centre-right voters, who accounted for 11.1% of the first round total, overwhelmingly supported Hofer in the runoff.

And that’s the big lesson in the rise of the far right – not just now, but in its much scarier manifestation of 80 or 90 years ago. The extremists are not powerful enough to take power on their own; they need the help of establishment forces. And all too often they get it.

In a thoughtful commentary today, the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt says that “More often than not, the story in Europe is of the outsiders, the upstarts, the captains of the resentful rattling the gates but rarely being entrusted with power.”

He mentions Poland and Hungary as cases where right-wing populists are now in power, but neglects to point out what makes them exceptions: their governing parties did not start out on the far right, but were taken over and moved that way by authoritarian leaders.

That’s the same model now being followed by Donald Trump in the United States, and once again the establishment, with a few honorable exceptions, is cravenly making its peace with the intruder.

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