Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It’s not just a feature of the U.S. and U.K.
Americans increasingly alarmed by their country’s political polarization would do well to cast an eye across the Atlantic. One look at Europe, and you’ll see that right now, it’s not just you. This year, several European countries have been riven by political struggles that reveal major rifts—between regions, between social classes, and between cities and their hinterlands—that have thrown longstanding political parties into chaos. The U.K’s Brexit referendum is the most high profile of these, but there’s another candidate currently ringing alarm bells: Austria.
As Austria is rarely a major international player, its politics might seem to qualify as (to quote Chamberlain) “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Its current quandary is nonetheless a compelling marker of the way the wind seems to be going across Europe. This spring, Austria witnessed one of the most striking presidential elections in recent history, a run-off not between candidates of long-standing parties but between an independent Green, Alexander Van der Bellen, and a representative of the far right, the Freedom Party of Austria’s (FPÖ) Norbert Hofer. Van der Bellen won, but only by a hair’s breadth, meaning that Austria only just missed having Western Europe’s first extreme-right head of state since the death of General Franco.
Except that they may not have missed it after all. The postal vote count for the election’s second round this May now appears to have been botched, and fresh elections are planned for October. In the meantime, Austria has a caretaker presidency occupied by the three presidents of the Austrian Lower House, one of whom is none other than… the FPÖ’s Norbert Hofer. Now, in an echo of recent dramas in Britain, Hofer has been discussing (and then rapidly backpedalling on) the possibility of an “Öxit,” or a Brexit-style departure of Austria from the E.U.
Such a scenario remains highly unlikely, but it’s not just the creeping popularity and agenda-shaping of Austria’s extreme right that deserves attention. It’s also the political divisions they have laid bare. Look at this map showing the regional breakdown of votes in the election’s first round, which included other candidates.
That yellow spot showing votes for Van Der Bellen is Vienna, the blue sections for Hofer covering everywhere else in the country. Austria’s capital, whose metro area houses nearly a third of the country’s population, is now completely at odds with its hinterland.
In the second round, when only the top two candidates were on the ballot, this stark picture was moderated somewhat as other regions (especially in Austria’s West) swung towards the Green candidate. But even then, the results might seem uncannily familiar to European politics watchers. That’s right, it looks a lot like the Brexit referendum results, which saw London and Scotland moving together in the opposite direction from the rest of the country. Indeed, it’s an irony that the voting results for a referendum on leaving the E.U. could make the U.K. look more than ever like a continental European country.
Here's the graphic to go with that Boris quote. "This vote does not mean the UK will be in any way less united." pic.twitter.com/6fHVqe4BUF— Jack Blanchard (@Jack_Blanchard_) June 24, 2016
So how did this polarization come about? The backstory of Austrian politics has some striking similarities to that of both the U.K. and the U.S., just with an even more striking tendency towards (now shattered) consensus. After World War II, Austria’s parliament tended to be evenly split between the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the center-Left Austrian Socialist Party (SPÖ), who mainly governed in coalition. This ultimately led to stagnation and an often complained-of need for party membership for Austrians who wanted to advance their careers. It did however manage to soften the stark divisions between left-leaning Vienna and Austria’s largely conservative regions, divisions that had riven the country in the interwar period.
The new millennium shattered that order—specifically in 1999, when the right-wing ÖVP formed a coalition with the extreme-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which is now neck and neck for the presidency. Founded by a former SS Officer, the FPÖ rose in popularity thanks to a combination of attacking Viennese elites (its initial stronghold was the southeastern region of Carinthia) and presenting wealthy, stable Austria as under threat from a deluge of migration. To outsiders, the palpable fear and resentment the party seems to feed from is perplexing. By international standards, Austria is a country effectively free of problems, with living standards that most nations could only hope to aspire.
Seen internationally, though, the FPÖ makes more sense. They’re part of a vanguard of extreme-right parties tapping into anxieties around falling living standards, mainly by pointing the finger at migrants. Its popular base is in fact similar to parties such as the Danish People’s Party (current Danish national vote share: 21 percent) or the Netherlands’ Eurosceptic Party for Freedom (current national vote share: 15.4 percent), or Britain’s UKIP, which only the U.K.’s political provincialism prevents from being recognized as European-style far-right populists.
Looking across the Atlantic, there are also obvious parallels with the U.S. Tea Party. It would be mistaken to ascribe these parties more support than they actually enjoy; they remain minority parties across Europe. But as the results of the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and Austria’s divisive presidential campaign debacle suggest, they are nonetheless harbingers of a new order in which major fissures inside countries—between classes and ethnic groups, and between the major cities and the smaller towns and more rural areas that surround them—prove ever harder to reconcile.