As most readers already know, the rerun of the Austrian presidential election last Sunday resulted in a victory for the Green candidate, Alexander Alexander Van der Bellen, and a defeat for Norbert Hofer of the FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, Austrian Freedom Party). Our Austrian correspondent Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff examines the reasons for Mr. Hofer’s defeat.
An Analysis of the Austrian Presidential Election
by Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff
“Good defeated Evil.” (Michael Häupl, mayor of Vienna)
Or: How Norbert Hofer lost an election he could and should have won
A broad alliance based on fear comprising all parts of the Austrian establishment — including all political parties —ensured an EU-compliant president. At the end of the day, Austrians voted in favor of the supra-national European Union and against Austria (the president-elect actually longs for a centralized EU, with the Commission acting as president. What he fails to realize, perhaps, is that in this case he would only be a local government leader, akin to a governor in the USA). A tragedy, one might think. However, I say: better to have a lame duck in the Hofburg (the official office of the president) than Hillary Clinton and her cronies in the White House. An Austrian president is irrelevant, whereas an American president is not. It’s really that simple.
The result of the election had one major advantage: the lengthiest election campaign in Austrian history has finally come to an end. Today, more than 53 percent are more or less happy, some even elated; 46 percent likely feel betrayed, betrayed by a tsunami of the entire media establishment (the word Gleichschaltung inevitably comes to mind), the armada of state-sponsored artists and those who think they are artists, the hysteria emanating from elderly Muppets on the political sidelines, former “Conservatives”, staunch leftists and statists, who felt the voters needed to be instructed in casting their vote for the “good” candidate. Yes, the Left’s victory required the consolidated might of all “good” Austrians. From this point of view, Norbert Hofer’s 46 percent must be applauded and respected and his voters lauded for their courage. However, the election result has baffled those who firmly counted on victory of the “right-wing extremist, who was determined to lead Austria out of the European Union and re-establish concentration camps” (not). The hungry-for-scandal media, which prior to the election descended upon Vienna like vultures, must have been sorely disappointed. What a waste of their time!
So what happened? Yes, Hofer and his team fought a valiant battle and his 46% can and should be viewed as a victory. Nevertheless, something must have gone wrong, given that Hofer had led in the polls and at the betting offices. I consider myself a truth-seeker, and thus I can and will not ignore the numerous blunders and beginner’s mistakes committed by the Hofer campaign. This election could and should have been won.
So why wasn’t it?
As always, there is no one-word answer. Yes, the establishment successfully united against Mr. Hofer. Yes, the media successfully ran a campaign of fear against Mr. Hofer. Yes, the leader of the BREXIT referendum, Nigel Farage, was an unguided missile with his uncalled-for and untrue message on election eve that a Hofer victory would necessarily lead to an ÖXIT (Austria leaving the EU). Yes, the leader of the conservative party ÖVP admitted he would cast his vote for the leftist candidate, with ÖVP mayors in non-urban areas following suit. However, one must also address the blunders in the FPÖ campaign:
|1.||According to the commentator Andreas Unterberger, voters do not appreciate the attempt to overturn an election result by contesting it.|
|2.||Hofer made the mistake of meandering: initially, he was successful in softening the traditional party positions; however, in the final debate, he descended into polemics and constant accusations of lying on the part of his opponent. People were obviously turned off and frightened, especially women.|
|3.||Despite Donald Trump’s election victory, Hofer was unable to establish himself as an Austrian Trump. The media certainly tried their utmost to tie Trump to Hofer; however, Hofer is anything but an Austrian Trump.|
|4.||Austrians criticize the European Union, its immigration policies, and its disastrous economic policies, among others, but the majority of Austrians apparently do not want to leave the EU. (This decision will not matter, due to Italy’s NO in the referendum. It is likely that the EU will disintegrate anyway.)|
|5.||The election was also decided by media outlets such as the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF), which de facto ignored the entire topic of immigration, terror and Islam in spite of numerous victims, not least the recent attack in Ohio. This constitutes massive manipulation of voter opinion, especially since ORF and the other media outlets are very aware how important this topic is to the population.|
|6.||During the entire campaign, the party did not make a serious attempt to carry its message to the different subsystems within society and to prove that the party is part of societal reality.|
|7.||Those target groups that were the most decisive for winning the election were never addressed. While this is a challenge for FPÖ, it is of utmost importance to focus on groups and voters in universities, arts and culture, the medical field, etc.|
|8.||The leader of the conservative party acting as a traitor to concervative values doesn’t mean it is is impossible for FPÖ to find reputable personalities and authorities to proclaim support for FPÖ positions.|
|9.||Just because the leader of the conservative party is a traitor doesn’t preclude the FPÖ from presenting an offer to ÖVP voters.|
|10.||In its final phase, the campaign was definitely too aggressive and offensive. The ground rule is that a controversial contender should not be in an attack mode in the final third of an election campaign.|
|11.||Last, but not least: FPÖ has a massive problem with women voters, not just in this election, but in all elections. Given that more than half of the population is made up of women, it is baffling to consider how the party expects to decisively win any election in the future. It is a fact that the party leadership is made up of a handful of men who live and work in a bubble, and who are immune to criticism or outside advice or pointers.
Finally, the success of the campaign of fear which led to a fear of isolation within the population cannot be underestimated. As noted by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, people fear isolation and feel more comfortable by agreeing with majority opinions, even when they are wrong. Noelle-Neumann argues that “public opinion is social control, defined as opinions that can be expressed without risking sanctions or social isolation, or opinions that have to be expressed in order to avoid isolation.” Noelle-Neumann notes that a person can “only complete and explain the world by making use of a consciousness which in large measure has been created by the mass media.”
This is one of the primary reasons for Hofer’s loss. People want to be winners; they want to side with the victorious, the good, the noble side. The media relentlessly pounded on the population the mantra “If you vote for Hofer, you’re a loser, an idiot, a hater.”
Who wants to be associated with the losers? It’s easy to prevent that by casting a vote for rainbows and unicorns, for the feel-good candidate.
So this is why Norbert Hofer lost.
- Noelle-Neumann, Elisabeth (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion, our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Scheufele, Dietram A; Moy, P (2000), “Twenty-five years of the spiral of silence: A conceptual review and empirical outlook”, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 12 (1): 3—28, doi: 10.1093/ijpor/12.1.3.