Rise of the Populists

Austria a Step Ahead in Europe's Race to the Right

By Hasnain Kazim, Katrin Kuntz, Walter Mayr and Barbara Supp

Austria's mainstream parties long believed they could keep the far right under control. On Sunday, though, a right-wing populist could become the country's president. What went wrong? The answer has implications for all of Europe.

For someone who, it is said, wants to fundamentally change the country, Norbert Hofer seems quite relaxed. He is sitting there sipping his tea with a smile on his face and talking about all that he wants to accomplish should he be elected president of Austria.

It is a recent Friday morning, shortly before an important press conference, but Hofer is not to be rushed. His ornate office is located on the second floor of the parliament building in the heart of Vienna, where he -- for the time being -- occupies the position of third president of the Nationalrat, Austria's parliament. On May 22, though, he is seeking to make history. Were he to win the second round of presidential elections on that day, he would become the first candidate ever from the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) to move into the Hofburg Palace, the former imperial seat that now serves as the office of the country's president.

If he wins, and his chances are good, Austria would have a president who is "decisively opposed to forced multiculturalism, globalization and mass immigration." He has blasted his opponent, Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, as a "fascist, green dictator."

As in Germany, the position of president in Austria is largely symbolic despite being the country's highest representative. But there are key differences. For one, the president is elected by popular vote, giving the office holder the kind of electoral legitimacy that the president of Germany does not have. For another, the Austrian president is commander in chief of the country's military. Beyond that, though, were Hofer elected, he would have political power domestically as well.

Hofer says he doesn't understand all the agitation surrounding his candidacy and all the talk of a "presidential putsch" from editorialists and experts on the constitution. He doesn't understand the concern that he, a candidate from the far right, would be in a position to dismiss the government, dissolve parliament and name a new chancellor of his choosing. The Austrian constitution gives the president the ability to do all of that, in theory. Thus far, though, no president has ever sought to exploit the full extent of those powers.

The FPÖ candidate does admit, however, that he reserves the right to intervene. "Of course, if a government has been in office for years and the situation in the country is becoming worse and worse, then it will be dismissed in the end."

Things haven't gone that far yet, but the chancellor is already history. On May 9, Chancellor Werner Faymann of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) stepped down unexpectedly.

It was the most recent climax in an ongoing development that has rocked the foundation of Austrian postwar political certitude. Since World War II, cooperation between the SPÖ and the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) has formed the backbone of the country's stability.

Should Norbert Hofer be elected president, it would be a further milestone in that erosion: In the first round of elections on April 24, he won fully 35 percent of the vote.

From Outrageous to Reality

All of Europe is looking this week to Austria, this small country in its midst where an eventuality considered by many to be outrageous may soon become reality. This reality, though, comes in the guise of a harmless, friendly face. Norbert Hofer is a 45-year-old trained airplane technician from the state of Burgenland, just southeast of Vienna. He is the father of four and his wife, his second marriage, is an elderly care professional. Hanging above his desk in parliament is a framed image of Article 1 of the constitution, which says of the Austrian Republic: "Its law emanates from the people."

Will the people of Austria really elect a right-wing populist to become their highest representative on Sunday? Is Austria in the process of becoming part of that group of European countries, along with Hungary, Poland, Finland and Switzerland, where the right-wing is already part of the government? And if so, how long will it take before the new right-wing movement tears Europe apart?

If one looks geographically at the congratulatory messages the FPÖ candidate Hofer received following his triumph in the first round of presidential elections, a checkered pattern of new European nationalists emerges. Marine Le Pen from the French party Front National was first, followed by the Lega Nord of Matteo Salvini and Forza Italia, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. From the Netherlands, congratulations came from PVV head Geert Wilders and from Germany, plaudits were sent by the right-wing populists from the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The right wing in Europe is becoming organized and developing contacts across the Continent. The election on Sunday is far more than just a purely Austrian affair.

Across Europe, large, mainstream parties are losing power and influence. It has happened in Spain, France and Germany, but nowhere has the phenomenon been as dramatically visible as during the first round of the presidential elections in Austria. Hofer came in first place followed by Green candidate Van der Bellen. An independent candidate came in third place. Only then did the candidates of the SPÖ and ÖVP -- the two parties that currently form the governing coalition -- follow in fourth and fifth place. Together, they didn't even managed 23 percent of the vote.

Both parties are in turmoil. After Faymann's resignation, the SPÖ scrambled to quickly find a new chancellor, ultimately choosing an outsider: Christian Kern, head of the Austrian national railway. At the ÖVP, meanwhile, the days of the party's leader Reinhold Mitterlehner are likely numbered, with Sebastian Kurz, Austria's young foreign minister, standing by to take over.

Lessons for Europe

The setbacks for the ÖVP and the SPÖ have been dramatic. Into the 1970s, the two parties enjoyed four times the support they did in the first round of this year's presidential elections, with the SPÖ experiencing a brief period during which it received over 50 percent of the vote.

These days, though, three out of four blue-collar workers in the country cast their ballots for the FPÖ. The right-wing populists are even ahead among labor union members.

What went wrong in Austria and its approach to the right-wing populists and their voters?

More importantly, are there lessons to be learned for the rest of Europe, particularly for Germany, where the country's political establishment is slowly getting used to the presence of the AfD?

The history of the FPÖ in Austria is a long one, meaning the country has experience with the question as to whether right-wing populists should be approached with rejection or acceptance.

Both the ÖVP and the SPÖ have, in the past, chosen acceptance. In 2000, the ÖVP formed a governing coalition with the FPÖ at the national level. And in Burgenland last year, the SPÖ joined the right-wing populists in the state government, despite the fact that a 1986 party resolution enjoined the Social Democrats from ever cooperating with the Freedom Party. With the prospect of new parliamentary elections approaching, it is fair to ask whether the SPÖ would be willing to join the FPÖ again.

The political duel looks like this: On the one side stands Hofer, a 45-year-old who wouldn't turn heads on the street -- a smiling, friendly man who talks rapidly. His campaign posters read: "Your homeland needs you now!"

On the other side is the 72-year-old Alexander Van der Bellen, the long-time head of the Greens whose appearances are professional but who has thus far seemed shaky on the campaign trail, depending on the day. After a serious illness that kept him away from the large political stage for years, he is now trying to make a comeback. He enters the final round of voting on May 22nd with a 14 percentage point deficit in the polls. His campaign posters read: "Those who love our homeland don't divide it."

In a debate between the two candidates held on Austrian public broadcaster ORF shortly after the first round of elections, Van der Bellen seemed polite. Indeed, he was so reserved that one commentator wondered if the Green candidate was aiming to form a coalition with the FPÖ candidate. "We are once again of the same opinion, Mr. Hofer," said Van der Bellen. In response to a question as to why he was suddenly talking so much about the "homeland," the Green Party leader said: "One can always learn something new." He seemed tame and harmless. Yet he is the candidate tasked with defending the political mainstream.

Can it really be that Austria is preparing to hand over the presidency to the right wing without a fight?

A further debate, held on Sunday evening, delivered a different impression. The two candidates were seated at a table in a sparsely decorated studio for a discussion free of rules and with no previously agreed list of issues for discussion. There wasn't even a moderator. The result was the kind of childish name-calling one might expect from a school playground. It was not a good look.

A Bit Eccentric

From the outside, the situation in Austria is vexing. It is a small country of not even 9 million residents -- and one that has long been allergic to suggestions from Germany, its large neighbor to the northeast. The country does not want to be treated like a little brother; it wants to be taken seriously as a political partner.

Germans, though, tend to see Austria more as a vacation destination than as a political entity: A bit eccentric perhaps, but full of attractions. It has transformed its history into a spectacle: The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Empress Sisi and Franz Joseph I., the "good emperor," who is once again being celebrated on the 100th anniversary of his death.

Austria has Mozart, the Spanish Riding School, apricot dumplings and the Burgtheater. It has the deep, with Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis, and the morbid, with the Imperial Crypt and the Central Cemetery. It has its coffee houses, where comfort meets depression and grumpiness. It has the mountains to climb and the lakes to swim in.

It is so beautiful in Austria. It is so beautiful in the state of Carinthia.

It is also beautiful in Grosskirchheim, a small municipality of 1,374 residents in the Möll Valley, a place of weathered farmhouses, tangy air and mountains with a dusting of snow. Little streams bubble through the meadows, the buttercups are in bloom and bubbly wine is being served in restaurants -- but dark thoughts are in the air.

In a wood-panelled parlor, Mayor Peter Suntinger has set out a Bible, a book about Islam and a further volume with the title: "The Koran, God and I." In addition, he has put on display colored printouts of the asylum-seeker IDs and passport photos belonging to seven refugees from Syria who now live in the village. He wants to show everything that is going wrong in Austria -- and in Europe at large.

Wearing a blue doublet, the balding, 51-year-old mayor has a mistrustful, cagey expression on his face. His greeting is brief.

Protecting the Homeland from Islam

Suntinger, a member of the FPÖ, proudly claims to have once stood atop the Grossglockner, Austria's highest peak, together with the late FPÖ leader Jörg Haider, who died in late night car crash in 2008.

He tells the story as though it were a religious experience.

Suntinger is a farmer, a mountaineer and the father of two. In the last municipal elections in 2015, he was elected with around 80 percent of the vote. There was no other candidate.

His lecture on the state of the world begins. "Essential to the Koran is that the woman is a subject -- and that in the 21st century," he says, before reading out suras pertaining to sexuality and identifying women as a "place of sowing of seed."

"The Koran sees only dead Christians as good Christians," he says. Europe only makes sense, he goes on, "if it focuses on preventing the Islamization."

He then presses his index finger onto the identification photo of one of the Syrian women. He says: "That is supposed to be the mother." Impossible, he says, the children are much too old.

"The West is colliding with the East!" Suntinger calls out. "The people have to wake up!"

By that point, his presentation was only 10 minutes old.

The economy of the Möll Valley was long dependent on mining and agriculture, but is now trying to attract tourists -- foreigners with money -- as well. As part of that effort, Suntinger has overseen the several-million-euro construction of a new recreation park, complete with a hall where you can shoot at virtual deer. "It's a big hit," says Suntinger. "Because of the overpopulation of foreigners, many more people have weapons here."

When Suntinger says foreigner overpopulation, he means migrants -- and he would like to keep them away. Because as the FPÖ says: "Protect the homeland from Islam."

Mountains and Cows

One year ago, someone from the Netherlands, who owns an empty pension in the municipality, wanted to provide shelter to 29 refugees, but the town was able to prevent it. The vote in the municipal council was 14 to one against the foreigners. Not only that, but someone threw a firework onto the pension's terrace and the Dutchman's hearing was damaged in the explosion. He then sold the place and moved away.

Now, a seven-member Syrian family lives in a former rectory on the hill above town and they generally stay out of sight: Fatima, Madiha, Mohamed, Amina, Anes, Boshra and Bashar, from Damascus. They have learned a bit of German, with their first words being "excuse me," "mountains," and "cows." "It is beautiful here," says Fatima up in the rectory. "But so quiet."

Down below, in the parish hall, Suntinger says: "Islamization is the great danger."

That things will improve and remain the way they always were, that was the promise made by Jörg Haider back when he was governor of Carinthia, the state in which Grosskirchheim is located. "Jörg dares to do things" was once Haider's campaign slogan, a perfect slogan for a populist. He came from Carinthia and used it as the base for his climb to the chairmanship of the FPÖ, transforming it into the state's most powerful political party by 1999. It was also here, in 1991, that he praised the "Third Reich" for its "decent job creation policies."

Haider drove the state of Carinthia to ruins and led his party into several scandals, but nevertheless brought the FPÖ a measure of acceptance. After Haider died in the 2008 traffic accident, almost 30,000 people showed up to his funeral in Klagenfurt. His charisma still holds sway in the Möll Valley.

He was a master at winning people over, many in Grosskirchheim still say today. Others note he was a great friend and keen observer of human nature. He wasn't shy about becoming one with the people, they say.

It has now been 30 years ago since Haider ended up at the top of the FPÖ, the party that was founded 60 years ago, initially providing a political home mostly to members of the country's far-right fraternities, known as Burschenschaften, and to ex-Nazis -- though many of them also joined the SPÖ and ÖVP.

Austria is a country where the "greatcoat of silence" was draped over the past for far too long, as author Karl-Markus Gauss once wrote. One of the founding myths of postwar Austria is that the country was not first-and-foremost an accomplice of Nazi Germany, but rather that it was the first victim of Hitler's aggression.

The Nazi Past

Early on, Austria's national consciousness was extremely fragile. Shortly after the war, fully half of the population saw themselves as being part of the German nation. The result has been that, even today, the majority of the population closes ranks in the face of massive assaults from abroad. That was the case in 1986, when the Nazi past of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim -- a former UN general secretary -- came to light. And that was also the case when Haider's FPÖ became part of the federal government and was faced with widespread outrage from Europe and further afield.

The chameleon-like Haider represented the transition from Nazi brown to the modern right wing. He proved attractive to large segments of the rural population but also to blue collar workers in the cities. He was able to present himself as a modernizer while at the same time appealing to the old Nazis; as the child of Nazi parents, he had the far-right vocabulary down pat.

Yet even Haider, who, starting in 1986, led the party to unprecedented popularity and, ultimately, into the federal government, proved too objectionable. He declined to represent the party on the national stage and wasn't part of the team when Wolfgang Schüssel, then head of the ÖVP, put together his governing coalition with the right-wing populists. The coalition didn't last long, partly due to the steady stream of provocations delivered by Haider from the sidelines, but it was important in that it showed the FPÖ could play in the top league.

When Schüssel went into a coalition with the FPÖ, the outcry from Europe was deafening and the Continent sought to sideline Austria with diplomatic sanctions, even declining to invite the country's foreign minister to certain events. It looked as though Europe were ready for a fight, but then it lost momentum. The pressure faded and Europe resigned itself to Austria's new government.

But the outcry was loud in Austria as well, at least among artists and intellectuals. One of those who made his voice heard at the time was theater director Martin Kusej, who is from Carinthia. In an essay, he decried the "friendly, open men and women" of "the horror called homeland." The party, he wrote, "will be everywhere." Today, Kusej is art director at the Residenztheater in Munich and, looking across the border to his home country, he sees a friendly, open man by the name of Hofer, who wants to become the president of Austria.

Kusej is broad-shouldered 55-year-old who still looks like the athlete he once was. He is from an agricultural region in southern Carinthia and is known for his coarse, sometimes brutish, staging. But he has a softer image of his homeland and the malaise it triggers.

Pre-Democratic Austria

He too says that Carinthia is beautiful. So beautiful that he can sometimes hardly stand it. In the autumn, there are always "two or three weeks where the low, late-afternoon light breaks particularly elegantly on the mountain formations or becomes entangled in the dying, colorful leaves on the trees. It is so outrageously beautiful that a heavy ring of iron forms around your heart. I have to leave quickly." He has found a literary quote from Haruki Murakami describing the feeling as "a groundless sadness called forth in a person's heart by a pastoral landscape."

The difficulty that Kusej had with his homeland during his childhood, though, had far less romantic origins. It came from the fact that he and others with Slovenian names were frequently singled out for abuse.
Still, he is uninterested in joining the standard chorus of anti-Austrian critique, in part because it is never fair to blame an entire country for a political development. But he is happy to talk about his experiences with politics back home. "Voting for a party means trying to get the maximum advantage for one's self," he says. It is an economy based on one's party membership and everyone, he said, internalized that view of politics. If you needed a job, were building a house or wanted a fishing license: "The party -- for many years it was the SPÖ -- took care of it.

And when the FPÖ came to power promising to put an end to it, everything just became worse."

He says that some aspects of Austria seemed pre-democratic. In Germany, he says, "you go to the authorities and have rights. In Austria, you are a supplicant." That, he says in his Munich office, "is why everybody in Austria, myself included, uses a title, no matter how farfetched."

They think such a title will guarantee them better treatment. They think that if a policeman sees "professor" or "engineer" in your identification, "they will have a certain reluctance to bite." It is an approach that sees authority as something that can both mete out punishment as well as offer protection. There is a desire, he says, for this authority "to be embodied in an omnipotent leader, a good leader, a ray of light. A good emperor."

Pre-democratic thought, a yearning for the ray of light -- that accelerates the rise of figures like Haider, and like Hofer. Theater can react to such a thing. Theater provides a free space where a world can be created to come to terms with such developments -- a space where hyperbole is allowed.

But is that freedom now under threat? In Vienna, a right-wing extremist group stormed the performance of Elfriede Jelinek's work "Die Schutzbefohlenen" (The Subjects). Kusej says that he has nasty visions when he thinks about it. He sees violent hordes marching through the streets "like in pre-fascist times."

Headscarves and Dreadlocks

"Pessimistic, perhaps," he says with a smile. Kusej says he is beset by the special Austrian form of pessimism that is combined with faith. "When you envision something particularly bad, there is always the hope that perhaps it won't be so bad after all."

Austria's governing parties, by contrast, are currently learning that things can also be even worse than the most dyed-in-the-wool pessimist might predict. For decades, the ÖVP and SPÖ have divided power and posts between them. Since the end of World War II, the two parties have governed the country in a coalition government, apart from three interludes. They watched the rise of the right-wing populists but continued to take their own primacy for granted -- particularly when the FPÖ, consumed by scandal, split in two in 2005 and plunged into the opposition, hardly able to attract 3 percent of the votes.

Now, though, you can head out to the Viennese working-class district of Simmering, in the southeast of the capital, to hear how things have changed. It is a diverse, slightly decrepit area with lots of social housing. The women wear headscarves or dreadlocks and one sees men with completely pierced and tattooed faces. If you want Wiener schnitzel, you have to go to the Ünlu Kebap diner and for punschkrapfen, that Austrian, pink-glazed delicacy soaked in rum, you must go to Yildiz Bakery.

It is here where Norbert Hofer achieved his best result in Vienna, with 41.2 percent.

Maria and Karl are sitting at the bar of an Austrian restaurant located on the main street of Simmering. It is noon on Sunday and blue smoke wafts through the room -- smoking is still allowed in many restaurants and bars in Vienna. She was a housewife her entire life while he worked for Opel until he retired five years ago. The two order their third round of beers. Back in October, they voted for the FPÖ candidate Heinz-Christian Strache in the Vienna city council election, they say. "And now Hofer." They see him as "smooth" and as "a young man who wants to change things." What exactly? "That Austria remains Austria."

Ali too, who came from Turkey to Austria when he was five and who has now lived in Vienna for 32 years and become an Austrian citizen, has high hopes for Hofer. "He's great," Ali says in the mobile phone shop where he works. Great? Really? From the perspective of an immigrant?

"There are more and more coming and they get everything handed to them while I had to work hard for years." Even so-called guest workers and their descendants have praise for the FPÖ.

Standing Up to Berlin

That is not completely Hofer's doing. Hofer, in his office in parliament, seems friendly, but he is adamant about what he has to say. He has used a cane since a serious paragliding accident in 2003 that almost left him paralyzed. He merely grins at the accusation that he is, despite his personable nature, merely a "wolf in sheep's clothing." And what about his recently purchased Glock-26 pistol?

He says he's not planning on using it in the presidential office. What about his connection to a German nationalist Burschenschaft -- one which views the Austrian state as a fiction -- in his home village of Pinkafeld? Hofer says he is merely an honorary member. And his widely quoted answer given during a televised interview when asked about the powers of Austrian president? At the time, he said: "You will be surprised to see how much is possible." Now he says it just slipped out.

Regarding Europe, Hofer says that "those issues that can be decided in the member states must once again be allowed to be addressed and decided there." He adds: "I think, for example, that Marine Le Pen is a politician with whom such goals can be implemented together." Le Pen is the leader of France's right-wing populist party Front National.

Hofer is convinced that if he and the rest of the FPÖ were to hold power in Austria, the EU would cease bowing to the will of the Germans. The FPÖ presidential candidate, to give an example, sees the demand issued by Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats in Germany, that "all democratic forces" must form a front against Hofer" as inadmissible meddling. "We are not taking orders from Berlin," he says.

The Front National, on the other hand, provides the Austrian right-wing populists with a kind of blueprint. Marine Le Pen has turned her back on open anti-Semitism -- primarily embodied by her father and party founder Jean Marie -- and is now trying to appear modern. It is a path that is appealing to Hofer's FPÖ as well.

The party is currently under the leadership of Heinz-Christian ("HC") Strache, who took over from Jörg Haider in 2005. It was Strache who chose Hofer as the party's candidate for tsidency and when Hofer takes the stage wearing his preferred dark suit, as he did on May 1 in a packed beer tent in Linz, Strache is sitting in the audience, wearing his knee-length lederhosen and matching vest. A trained dental technician, Strache spent his youth in the far-right milieu, taking part in militia training exercises. He initially attracted attention for his relentless election campaigning against immigrants in addition to the rigid organizational structure he imposed on the nationalist camp. Now, the FPÖ leads the nationwide public opinion polls in the country with 34 percent.

Austria for the Austrians

Hofer, his candidate, employs a gentler speaking style, but is just as far to the right as Strache.

He is fully devoted to his party, including to people like the FPÖ Vienna city council member who in 2013 demanded: "Now it's time to take out the clubs for all asylum frauds, criminals, illegal foreigners, criminal Islamists and leftist screamers!" Hofer was largely responsible for the party's 2011 platform, called "Austria First." It offers a look at the country as the FPÖ wants it to be.

That Austria is "not a country of immigration" and should focus primarily on its own citizens -- and not on those that do not possess an Austrian passport. Social housing, for example, should be reserved "to cover the housing needs of Austrian citizens," the platform reads.

Voters should also be asked to take part in national referendums, as in Switzerland. The homeland is to be loved and traditions maintained, because "those who value their own culture and homeland" can "defend themselves as needed against other cultures should they display an aggressive character that seeks to push aside our own culture."

The problem, the party consistently makes clear, is the foreigners, particularly Muslims. It is a message with which the FPÖ scores points among many of those Austrians who are fearful of losing their place in society and of being overrun by foreigners. The message does not do as well among the prosperous and the generous.

But Strache has secured a further triumph: The support of Ursula Stenzel, a distinguished presence who can be found in the Hotel Sacher. She has everything that a Viennese lady should have: a refined upbringing, blonde hair perfectly coiffed and held in place with a liberal dose of hairspray, carefully chosen gold jewelry and the ability, even during the tensest moments of conversation, to graciously balance her cup of coffee. She is, she says, "hopelessly bourgeois."

Before she joined the FPÖ list in 2015, she was a presenter on the main news show of public broadcaster ORF and, after that, head of the ÖVP delegation in the European Parliament.

Starting in 2005, she spent 10 years as chairwoman of District 1 in Vienna, which encompasses the very heart of the city. Now, she serves as "a bourgeoisie icebreaker, I'm aware of that," says Stenzel. She also says that the chemistry between herself and Strache is excellent.

The FPÖ is doing all it can to make headway within both the propertied upper class and the petit bourgeoisie without losing sight of its traditional, German-nationalist far-right wing.

Strache says he imagines the division of tasks as follows: He himself is responsible for the rough stuff, with his "husky eyes." The rest is covered by Norbert Hofer "with his deer eyes."

Green Party Confusión

Meanwhile, the Van der Bellen camp has had difficulty finding the right strategy for confronting the right wingers. The Green Party candidate said on television that he is hoping for a "grassroots movement." He promised that he would do all he could "within the framework of the constitution" to prevent a possible Chancellor Strache should it come to that -- if the FPÖ were to win the next parliamentary elections.

Despite all the calls from the anti-fascist camp for voters to avoid casting their ballots for the far right on May 22, though, Van der Bellen has avoided accusing the FPÖ of having right-wing extremist tendencies. His PR advisors have warned that doing so could trigger even more people to side with the FPÖ against such an onslaught.

But the Green candidate has also shown a more aggressive side. During a breakfast debate just over a week ago, he earned from Hofer the comment: "Herr Doctor, you are so angry today."

And during the tête-à-tête on Sunday, Van der Bellen warned that the coming vote was a "decision between a cooperative style and an authoritarian style." A Gallup survey is forecasting a close race, but prior to the first round, the polling company also predicted that Van der Bellen would do better than he did -- and Hofer worse.

What, then, can be done to ensure that Van der Bellen does in fact become Austria's next president?

Even André Heller, a leading member of the candidate's support team, doesn't know for sure.

Heller, who splits his time between his estate near Marrakesh and his Vienna apartment, turned away from the SPÖ eight years ago when Faymann became prime minister. The Social Democrats, he says -- a party that has even forgotten how to "take the hardships in social housing seriously" -- are themselves to blame for their own disaster. "That's why it is deceptive and even embarrassing to only attack Mr. Strache."

Although he is a Social Democrat himself, Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl agrees, saying that after decades of power, the SPÖ has forgotten how to "understand the language of the suburbs." That he is one of the most powerful members of this quarrelsome party, and yet is willing to say such a thing, is yet another example of the crisis in which the SPÖ finds itself.

Vienna's Powerful Mayor

It is 11:08 on this Thursday morning when the door to Häupl's office swings open. A man in a slim-cut, conservative suit steps out and says: "Good day, I am Christian Kern." It is a polite greeting, but somewhat unnecessary. Only seconds before emerging from the office, he had learned that he was to become Austria's next chancellor, replacing Faymann. He is hardly an unknown.

Kern is head of Austria's state-owned railway, an elegant-looking gentleman with a past that is indispensable for the Social Democrats: He grew up the son of a working-class family in the Simmering district of Vienna and became a member of the SPÖ early on. Within the powerful union wing of his party, Kern is considered modern but moderate -- someone who might be able to pull the party out of the swamp.

But how could the proud Austrian Social Democrats have fallen so low? The man whose office Kern has just left should know: 66-year-old Michael Häupl, who has been mayor of Vienna since 1994. For decades, he has pulled the strings for the Austrian Social Democrats.

It is Häupl who chose the unsuccessful chancellors Viktor Klima, Alfred Gusenbauer and Werner Faymann, even though he himself -- a man who is both down-to-earth and well educated -- would have been the more promising candidate. And it is interim party leader Häupl who, on this morning in his office with its view of St. Stephen's Cathedral, sets forth the party's new direction. When it comes to the vital refugee question, he describes the future under newly installed Chancellor Kern like this: "Our fundamental principle of humanity combined with order hasn't changed," Häupl says. "But we do want to know who is coming to us."

How will the SPÖ deal with the FPÖ? Häupl is known in Vienna for his folksy style and his hardline against the far right, but he has begun waffling on the issue. We must find a compromise, he says, "between political reality and our party platform." The proposal made by the head of the Carinthia chapter of the SPÖ, he says, is worth considering: namely that binding criteria be established for coalitions with all parties, and not just for the FPÖ.
Estrangement from the Mainstream

That is akin to a step-by-step retreat. And the bulky Häupl, who in a previous life in science became an expert on the cranial kinesis of geckos, doesn't deny it. He would like his party to be untainted and patient, moving slowly but tenaciously in the right direction. You can't simply rely on the dogmas of yesteryear, Häupl says.

The debate, in any case, has been reopened. And there are many in the party who view the SPÖ coalition with the FPÖ in Burgenland not as a misstep but as a model for the future.

Burgenland is the easternmost and least populated state in Austria, and the coalition, in which the right-wing populists are the junior partner, has been in office for almost a year. Presidential candidate Hofer, who is from the Burgenland town of Pinkafeld, helped midwife the coalition.

Hans Niessl, the Social Democrat who has governed Burgenland for the last 15 years, is considered a pragmatist and a man of the people. He has no ideological reservations about having the tightly hierarchical FPÖ in his state's government.

Niessl can count on the support of Austria's senior-most union leader, who recently called for the center-left to take a new approach to the FPÖ with the words: "You can't just shove the 35 percent who voted for Hofer into the right wing." More importantly, though, Niessl can invoke a famous precedent: that established by Bruno Kreisky, the four-time Austrian chancellor and the unchallenged political icon of the postwar period. Until 1971, Kreisky's socialist minority government was tolerated by the FPÖ and its then-leader, a former SS Obersturmführer (roughly equivalent to a lieutenant colonel). The arrangement granted the FPÖ a certain amount of legitimacy in the eyes of many.

"We are the successors of Bruno Kreisky," is the unblushing claim now made by FPÖ head Strache. The Freedom Party, he says, is a new Volkspartei, a term used to denote large parties representing a huge swath of the electorate. The FPÖ, he says, represents "the center of society."

These days, it is becoming clear just how large, and likely lasting, the estrangement has become between voters and those parties, like the ÖVP and SPÖ, that were once defined by the term Volkspartei. Their old mistakes have continued through the decades and new ones have joined them.

Both the center right and the center left have underestimated the electorate's anger that has built up as a result of their almost God-given claim to leadership in Austria.

Simple Solutions

The situation has been made worse by the fact that mistrust of those in power has been growing not just in Austria, but in all of Europe. That mistrust can be summed up in three overarching complaints: We are being steamrolled by globalization; nobody is listening to us; and the market economy benefits others.

But the FPÖ is listening and is quick to offer simple solutions: Close the door. Shut out the migrants.

Both the SPÖ and the ÖVP found in the first round of the presidential elections that it doesn't help to simply parrot such answers. They copied the immigration policies proffered by the FPÖ and tightened the country's asylum policies to such an extent that those policies hardly have an application any more. But they were heavily punished by the voters anyway. Why should voters choose a copy when they can have the original?

It has become apparent that this opponent cannot be defeated with imitations. It may, however, help to listen to the voters, even those who have been lost, to take their concerns seriously and to provide their own answers that are more intelligent than those coming from the FPÖ.

Why, though, didn't the SPÖ immediately throw their weight behind Van der Bellen and against Hofer following the first round of elections? Some critical, despairing Social Democrats give the following answer: "When you only managed to get 11 percent, what can you really tell the voters?"

But there are also other reasons as well that reach far into the past. One of those who has long considered the question is Josef Haslinger, a political essayist and author. He is also president of the German PEN Center and primarily known for being the author of "Opernball," or "Opera Ball," a German-language novel dealing with right-wing terrorism.

Haslinger can be found in his garden house in the Grinzing district of Vienna when he is not in Leipzig carrying out his duties as professor of literary aesthetics. On a recent Friday after the first round of voting, Haslinger was wondering how many Austrians would "come to their senses" and resist Hofer, particularly among Social Democrats. In an essay, he addressed the question as to "why Austrian Social Democrats have for decades served as accessories to the FPÖ." One answer can be found the early 1930s.

'Engraved in Their Memories'

It was a time when the Christian Socialists and the Social Democrats engaged in a brief, but bloody civil war. Both parties were banned -- the Nazis and the Social Democrats. Some socialists, including the later Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, sat together with a Nazi in the same prison cell.

For the Social Democratic movement, says Haslinger, "the awareness that they were not defeated by the Nazis, but by the political mainstream, has been engraved in their memories for decades."

Haslinger wrote early on about the Nazi past of then-Austrian President Waldheim and published an essay called "Politics of Emotion," that still provides a foundation for the present-day debate.

Haslinger wrote about Haider, organized demonstrations and repeatedly took political sides as an intellectual and as PEN president. And now, in his garden house surrounded by nature with Vienna behind it, the issue is once again at the forefront. Do demonstrations help? Calls to action? Podium discussions?

"It would be nice," Haslinger says, "if it weren't the same old people" -- people like himself -- "standing behind such a movement." The call came and he signed. But there isn't nearly as much outrage today as there was in 2000, when the FPÖ joined the government.

Perhaps that is because the shock isn't as great as it would be in Germany, for example, were the AfD to win an election. Over the years, Austria has slowly gotten used to the FPÖ. The taboos have shifted.

It used to be that no one admitted to having voted for the FPÖ, Haslinger says. "I didn't know a single FPÖ voter." And today? "Today I know one. Quite well, actually." And? "We have been talking about it since."

What else can one do other than talk, write and produce words?

A short walk leads to the Grinzing cemetery, where the famous singer Peter Alexander is buried as is the late publisher of the newspaper Kronenzeitung. So too is the writer Thomas Bernhard, who's grave Haslinger visits regularly.

Thomas Bernhard is resting under thick and well-tended greenery. Sometimes his grave is vandalized by unknown idiots, but on this day everything is quiet and peaceful. There he lies, unaware that his saying about punschkrapfen is once again being quoted: that Austrians are a lot like this Austrian national treat -- red on the outside, brown on the inside and always a bit drunk.

Another tidbit making the rounds again these days is from the satirist Karl Kraus, who once called Austria the "testing grounds for the end of the world." Or the old saw from playwright Johann Nestroy, who decried the "grief" that "constantly shines through our threadbare warmth and friendliness."

But perhaps the best bon mot comes from the writer and translator Hans Weigel. He once said of his country: "Please don't think evil thoughts about the Austrians. They have enough of those themselves."

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