The Man Who Did Not Lose Photo: Gemeinsam für Van der Bellen, Wolfgang Zajc

The Man Who Did Not Lose

Against all odds and amidst the alarmist coverage of Brexit and Trump, Austria elected a progressive green president. While every step of his right wing rival was eagerly marked by prime-time commentators as part of some allegedly unstoppable far-right “wave” across European politics, the real winner’s name and his political programme remained somewhat obscured for the mass audiences across Central and Eastern Europe. After Austrians voted Alexander Van der Bellen into office at a re-run election on December 4, 2016, a closer look into his winning campaign and alternative political platform is due.

A (not so) green campaign

Green electoral base was not sufficient and had to be expanded. Photo: Van der Bellen Campaign/ Wolfgang Zajc

While Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Austrian Green Party, ran as an independent candidate for the presidency, the Greens were among his strongest and most prominent supporters. According to official sources, the party donated up to four million Euros for his campaign. Martin Radjaby-Rasset, the former head of communications of the Greens and now director of the advertising agency Jung von Matt/Donau, conceptualized Van der Bellen’s campaign.

On average,  Austrian green voters are young, have completed higher education, reside in urban areas, and make up less than 12 % of the total electorate. Van der Bellen had to substantially expand his electoral base in order to win, and he did this by creating a rhetorical distance to the Green party, which he had led for over a decade. Traditional “green” terms such as “sustainability”, were not employed neither in his public speeches nor in his programme. Instead, he stressed basic and understandable concepts such as employment, European consolidation, dialogue, and economic “strength”, but never “growth”, for instance, thus avoiding neoliberal slang as well.

This was a reasonable strategy, given that in presidential elections, unlike parliamentary ones, it is an individual’s appeal rather than party ideologies and programmes that competes for votes. Votes go to the candidates who successfully bridge social splits regardless of competing ideological approaches. But the campaign’s style, even though it eventually led Van der Bellen to the presidency, created controversies both for the Greens and in society as a whole. In an analysis for der Standart Peter Mayer and Michael Volker argued that the campaign’s strategy may have caused potential conflict within the Greens.

Volker Plass of Green Economy, an association of entrepreneurs, is convinced that both the Green party and green NGOs will benefit from Van der Bellen’s victory. Yet, he warns, the Greens are well advised not to rely too much on the “Van der Bellen effect” for the next parliamentary elections. A recent poll by the Linzer-Market-Institut bears out this stance: the presidential success has not resulted in any drastic change in political choices, and the Greens’ electorate remains stable at 12%.

Traditionalism and folk costumes reclaimed from the right wing. Photo: Alexander Van der Bellen Campaign/ Wolfgang Zajc

In order to appeal to the “middle of  society”, Van der Bellen employed a novel symbolism never used before in green campaigning. Terms such as “Heimat”, a loose concept of home and the place where one belongs to and images of people wearing traditional Austrian clothes with folk music background were so far exclusively considered part of the repertoire of conservatives and the right-wing.

Voting for change

The 2016 presidential election in Austria was by all means historic and not only because it took a year to complete. In the first round, voters could choose from among five candidates who represented almost the entire political spectrum. Excessive media coverage accelerated the public’s interest and attention to an extreme. In the spring, the topic of the election seemed ubiquitous, with vivid discussions and fierce debates surrounding the qualities and platforms of the candidates. It soon became clear that the elections would turn into a landslide loss for both the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, the two traditional political powers who form the incumbent Austrian government.

The first election round eventually left two candidates from the opposition for the public to consider. What had seemed unthinkable had now become reality: for the first time in history, the president would be a candidate of the opposition no matter what choice the voters made. At that stage already the election was clearly a popular vote for political change. There was one last essential question to be decided: which way would Austria turn.

Alexander van der Bellen has been a central figure in the development of the green movement ever since the 1970s. Between 1999 and 2008, he acted as chairman of the Greens. Besides his political career, Van der Bellen was an appointed professor at the Department of Economics, University of Vienna. His commitment to principles of liberal economics contributed to a rather controversial standing among advocates of the green camp. His opponent Norbert Hofer has been a key figure in the Liberal Party at the national level ever since he became deputy-party chairman in 2005 and was elected to the National Assembly in 2006. In 2011, he was assigned the responsibility to formulate the Liberal Party’s official party program.

The Austrian election had clearly shown that this election was about the people’s desire for a change of course.  What was at stake at the closing run was its direction. On the national level, it was important to impede the rightist Liberal Party from lifting one of its members to a frontline political office with debatable power. A widespread belief, not only among leftists, is that a successful Norbert Hofer would have inevitably led to further progress by the Liberal Party in preliminary parliamentary elections next year. The collapse of the incumbent government formed by Social Democrats and Conservatives, which is being criticized heavily for its ineffectiveness and inertia, would have opened doors for a rightist landslide win.

While the leaders of the government parties were initially hesitant to offer advice on how to vote, they eventually gave up their aloofness in the last months of the campaign. Almost all prominent political leaders stated their election choices publicly or gave official voting recommendations. In addition to the majority of moderate and left politicians, Van der Bellen won the support of prominent members of society and the economy; and several civil society initiatives were instrumental in mobilising voters. The controversial opinions on Van der Bellen gave way to a consensus among moderate and leftist politicians, entrepreneurs, and half of the Austrian electorate that the next president should be Alexander Van der Bellen.

Predictably, the second round of elections turned into a fierce nip-and-tuck race. On May 22, 2016, Alexander Van der Bellen won the presidency by a slim margin of only 30,863 votes over Herbert Hofer. Joy and relief in the winning camp did not last long, as shortly after the results were announced, the Liberal Party officially appealed against them on procedural grounds. Procedural sloppiness persisted, and the repetition of the second round, ruled by the Constitutional Court, was in turn postponed from October 4 to December 4, 2016.

The campaign in the autumn was characterized by heavy mobilisation and incremental establishment of a united front against the right. Both candidates were aware of the small margin between them and thus tried to vigorously expand the scope of their electorate. These efforts eventually paid off for Van der Bellen. Voting turnout rose from 68.5% from the first round to 72.7% in the second in May to 74.2% at the repetition on 4 December. In comparison, at the presidential elections of 2010, the voter turnout had been as low as 53,6%. According to the official numbers published by Austria’s Ministry of Interior, 53.8% voted for Van der Bellen and 46.2% for Hofer. This time around, Van der Bellen won by 350,000 votes.

Optimists united

In spite of being a career politician, Van Der Bellen used the language of ordinary people throughout his winning campaign. Photo: Alexander Van der Bellen Campaign/ Wolfgang Zajc

The election analysis by the public survey research institute SORA shows that Van der Bellen gained votes from non-voters and from conservatives, while Norbert Hofer lost votes from non-voters. The divide between optimists and pessimists regarding quality of life in Austria was conspicuous: 73% of the optimists voted for Alexander Van der Bellen, while 70% of the pessimists voted for Norbert Hofer. Subjective perceptions of optimism and pessimism, however, do not necessarily reflect socio-economic realities, as a staff member of the parliament related to the Social Democrats reasonably pointed out. Voting patterns based on educational background and gender have not changed since the previous parliamentary elections, but they have become somewhat more pronounced. As expected, Van der Bellen could mobilise more votes among women and people with a higher formal education, whereas Hofer’s electorate was predominantly male and less educated.

International events with political significance and the widespread international acknowledgement of a consolidated trend towards populist right-wing politicians also influenced the second round. The danger of this trend and its consequences became a pronounced reality for many Austrians after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the USA. Against this background, the moderate and left-wing political forces of Austria as well as civil society joined in a united front to mobilise voters for Alexander Van der Bellen, who was undoubtedly the more reasonable candidate with pro-European values in spite of his controversial standing.

With Brexit and Donald Trump in the background, moderate and left-wing forces and civil society joined in a united front for the more reasonable candidate with pro-European values.

The elections in Austria were closely followed by numerous international media outlets. Similar to the national level, the outcome of the elections was anticipated as a major political signal for the EU on an international level as well. Hopes were pinned not so much on Van der Bellen’s green values but rather on his pro-European values given the fear shared by many Europeans of a Europe further divided and stuck in the morass of extremist politics.

The election of Van der Bellen has averted this danger and given time to the moderate forces to consolidate and take action. This applies to the national as well as to the European level of politics. Whether they succeed to do so and start acting to deliver effective public policies remains to be seen.

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