There was an audible sigh of relief throughout Europe this week when the far-right candidate very narrowly failed to gain the highest office in Austria.
But the message from Austria is still very clear: Politics have changed, new forces are gaining strength, and there is no immediate turning back. And this applies well beyond Austria’s borders.
Ever since it regained its sovereignty in 1955, Austria was governed by the two large political parties: the Christian-democratic ÖVP and the social-democratic SPÖ.
They ruled in coalition or through that peculiar Austrian phenomena called Proporz, which meant that they allocated positions throughout society to their party loyalists.
This was an era when the politics of democratic Europe were dominated by large political parties of either a more or less socialist orientation or a more or less Christian inspiration. It was the era of the big narratives, of ideologies and of trying to shape the future.
But with the end of the division of Europe, a new era slowly dawned. Gradually, the big narratives started to fade away, and during the past decade or so they have lost part of their power to attract and to mobilize. The large political parties built on these narratives, in particular on the center-left, are losing ground.
Austria was dominated by these two large political forces to a greater degree than perhaps any other country — and in no other country has their demise been so dramatic.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, both Austrian parties always won more than 40 percent in every election. Since then, there hasn’t been an election when that has been the case. With only slight interruptions, both parties have been in constant decline.
It was a watershed event when in the first round of the presidential election, the candidates of the two old giants of the politics of Austria only got 11 percent each, and neither of them made the second round.
With the old political landscape fading, we see the rise of parties in more or less fundamental opposition to the ideas and principles that have governed the West until now. The politics of ideology has faded, and the politics of identity has been gaining ground.
The rise of the nationalist right has been faster in Austria than in most other countries. It is obvious that it has been boosted significantly by legitimate revulsion against the old-fashioned system of Proporz. Change has been in high demand.
With faith in the future also waning in view of economic difficulties and rapidly changing societies, it has been easy for these forces to trumpet nationalist myths and gain adherents for their calls for closed borders and old values. The Muslim hordes are at the gates, they say; Brussels is just bureaucracy, trade is treason, and the United States is aggressive and alien. These have been the messages resonating in the valleys and on the plains of rural Austria.
While the politics in the past was about different ideas about a better future, this is about bringing protection against change and a future that many fear will be even more different. Previously you won elections by saying that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. These forces are promising to bring back a yesterday that they portray as better than the tomorrow they see coming.
Immigration is clearly one part of the story that Austria has had difficulties handling. But that voters in more diverse Vienna strongly rejected the siren songs of closed borders is a good sign in the darkness.
It was Karl Popper, born in Imperial Vienna, who not only conceived the ideas of open society but also warned of the “strain of civilization” that can occur when change is seen as too rapid, and the lure of a return to the tribe makes itself felt.
This, then, is the political battle being played out in the new political landscapes of Europe. Remnants of the old battles of ideologies are certainly still around, but more and more it’s a contest between an open and a closed society. Popper noted that it was the development of communications and commerce that caused the breakdown of the closed societies of the ancient world, and in an echo of this we see these new political forces rally strongly against immigrants and trade agreements.
Austria should be seen as a warning signal for all. But everything is not lost if the political leaders of Europe could take some time off from the crisis management that increasingly dominates their days and spell out the case for an open society, an open world and a better future.
The splendor of the city of Vienna could well serve as an inspiration.