two Elections

A Double Dose of Unhappiness

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  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

     Voter anger isn’t just limited to the United States. The rise of the far-right in the tiny Alpine nation of Austria shows just how widespread the anger has become.
  • Facts

    Facts

    The United States is voting November 8 at the end of a divisive and nasty election campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

     Austria will vote in a run-off presidential election December 3 between two anti-establishment candidates: The far-right candidate Norbert Hofer and former Green party leader Alexander van der Bellen.
     
    More major elections are looming in Europe next year, including in Germany and France.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Back in 2002, days before France voted in its presidential run-off election, Socialists in the town of Lille put up a poster: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist.”
 
That essentially summed up the public mood. The choice then was between conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac, dogged by allegations of corruption, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right extremist who blamed much of France’s woes on immigrants and Muslims.
 
More than a decade later, voters on both sides of the Atlantic are again facing some pretty ugly choices. More than many, perhaps, I know this all too well. My father is Austrian and my mother, American, and I have both Austrian and American citizenship.
 Over the next month, I am voting in what are most definitely two very uninspiring races, one in Europe, and one in America. Separated by thousands of miles, the two countries are nevertheless joined at the hip in dissatisfaction, distrust and dystopia.
 
Both electorates are angry and eager for change. Both face the prospect of a far-right candidate taking over, propelled into power on a wave of anti-establishment rage.
 
Everyone knows about the situation in the United States. The majority of voters dislike both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, polls show, nevertheless one has to win, probably Clinton. In Germany, such a decision is called a choice between “plague and cholera.”
 
For me, it’s a far cry from the 2008 U.S. race between straight-talking Vietnam war hero John McCain and first-ever African-American candidate Barack Obama. That was inspiring. The Economist’s cover that year was: “America at its best.”
 
This year, The Economist could run a different cover. In the eyes of many, the choices come down to either a corrupted establishment figure or a seemingly unstable populist outsider promising radical change that he almost certainly can’t deliver.
 
In Austria, the choice for Austrian president, a largely ceremonial post but one with much symbolic value, is equally dispiriting. Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party leads in the polls over a former Green leader, Alexander van der Bellen.
 
Neither belongs to the two centrist parties that have dominated Austrian politics in the modern era – the conservative Austrian People’s Party and the Austrian Social Democratic Party.
 
As in the United States, the Austrian campaign has been incredibly nasty. A no-holds-barred debate between the two candidates back in May – imagine Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump without a moderator – descended into shouting, rude hand gestures and an argument about which candidate’s wife had been more supportive on the campaign trail.
 
In a sense, Austria could be a preview of what’s to come in the United States, if Donald Trump loses and somehow manages to legally block Clinton from office.
 
In the first run-off in Austria, which was held in June, Green Party candidate Van der Bellen won by a razor-thin margin. Mr. Hofer alleged voting fraud and appealed. The nation’s highest court agreed some votes could have been tampered with, and ordered a re-run.
 
That was supposed to be held in September, but weeks before the new vote, election officials postponed it again, citing problems with the envelopes sent out for mail-in ballots, which weren’t sticking after being licked, again opening the possibility of tampering.
 
So Austria will finally hold its election on December 4.
 
Like Americans, many Austrians are tired of the status quo. The two centrist parties have been ruling the country in a “grand coalition” for a decade – and voters have grown tired of the same old unsolved problems, the same old ineffective solutions, the same old faces.
 
As in the United States, the far-right is feeding off fears of immigration and globalization. Austrian unemployment hit 8.3 percent in August, the highest level since the 1950s, as the country has taken in thousands of refugees from the Middle East.
 
While America’s flirtation with populism is relatively new, Austria’s is not.
 
The far-right Freedom Party, which draws from its base in the southwestern state of Carinthia along the Slovenian and Italian borders, has been an aggressive proponent of an anti-immigrant, xenophobic agenda since the 1980s.
 
In the 1990s until his death in 2008, the party was led by Jörg Haider, a charismatic speaker who electrified crowds that had grown tired of the technocratic tedium doled out by the establishment parties. In 2000, the Freedom Party grew to become the second-largest political force in Austria, and the centrist People’s Party used them to build its ruling coalition.
 
The political marriage legitimized the Freedom Party in Austria and broke a taboo by inviting a far-right party to share power. Austria was ostracized and the European Union imposed unprecedented “diplomatic sanctions,” banning Austrian diplomats from meetings in Brussels.
 
But the populists eventually faltered. Infighting tore apart the Freedom Party and a more moderate wing emerged that helped the conservatives run the government. The party eventually split, with its more radical wing creating the Alliance for Austria’s Future, shaped by Mr. Haider, who died intoxicated after crashing his car at high speed.
 
So as I prepare to do my democratic duty in both countries, and consider the choices I face in each one, I think to myself: Europe and the United States aren’t so far apart as everyone says.
 
 
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition based in Berlin. To contact the author: cermak@handelsblatt.com
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