Few countries have borne the brunt of Europe’s refugee crisis more than Austria. On Monday, the ongoing refugee crisis claimed its first major political scalp.
Werner Faymann resigned suddenly on Monday as Austria’s chancellor, two weeks after his Social Democratic party suffered an embarrassing defeat in presidential elections. Mr. Faymann also stepped down as the head of the center-left SPÖ, the Austrian Social Democratic Party that has ruled the country for much of the post-war period.
His resignation, brought about by a failure to stop the far right’s rise in this central European country of 8.5 million people, should serve as a cautionary tale for much of Europe. Much of the continent has struggled to curb populist parties in the past year amid sharp disagreements over how to handle an influx of well over one million refugees from Syria and other countries.
Austria has been at the center of Europe’s tortured response to the refugee crisis – and has often seemed overwhelmed. Mr. Faymann himself has been a controversial player in the debate over how to handle the influx of hundreds of thousands that passed through Austria in the past year, first offering a welcoming hand before making an about-face and closing its borders to new arrivals.
Mr. Faymann’s rightward shift over the past few months angered many in his own party. It also did little to stem the far right’s rise in a country that has a history of dabbling with populist parties.
“This country needs a chancellor who has the full support of his party. This government needs an energetic reboot. Somebody who doesn’t have that backing cannot fulfill this role.”
The right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which has exploited fears over the refugee influx in the past year, finished first in early-round voting in April 24 presidential elections. The party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, won 36 percent of the vote and will face off against a former Green party leader, Alexander Van der Bellen, in a runoff later this month.
The election garnered international headlines and proved a major embarrassment for the SPÖ, which is in a coalition government with the Austrian conservative party, the ÖVP. The two major governing parties’ candidates were left out of the second round for the first time since the end of World War II.
Mr. Faymann had come under increasing pressure from his own party following the April election. The SPÖ has been wracked with infighting over the last few weeks as much of Austria’s establishment grapples with how to prevent the far right’s rise in the polls and deal with the refugee influx.
In a statement to the press, Mr. Faymann, who became chancellor in December 2008, made clear that he simply no longer has his own party’s support. While the majority of the party backed him at a party conference over the weekend, Mr. Faymann said that was not enough.
“This country needs a chancellor who has the full support of his party. This government needs an energetic reboot. Somebody who doesn’t have that backing cannot fulfill this role,” Mr. Faymann said in his brief statement to the press on Monday.
To be sure, the Austrian president is largely a ceremonial post, although it is the official head of state and commander in chief, but the victory is nevertheless part of a pattern. Last year, the Freedom Party narrowly missed claiming the mayorship of Vienna.
Should Mr. Hofer win the runoff, it would mark an unprecedented right-wing victory in Western Europe. Mr. Van der Bellen is hoping to come from behind by snapping up support from the establishment parties. Polls show the two candidates are currently neck-and-neck.
An even greater worry for Austria’s establishment is that the FPÖ is currently leading polls for the next parliamentary elections, which will have to take place between now and 2018.
Some expect Mr. Faymann’s resignation could pull the date for parliamentary elections forward to this year. The NEOS, a new center-right party that has sprouted up in the last few years, on Monday already called for fresh elections.
Early elections could be dangerous for the establishment: For the first time in the post-war period, the center-left SPÖ and center-right ÖVP could fail to garner 50 percent of the vote and the FPÖ could emerge on top. Recent polls have put the two parties at about 22 to 23 percent each. The FPÖ is polling above 30 percent.
Such a result could plunge Austria into a political crisis, forcing one of the parties to enter into a coalition with the far right or, possibly, with a collection of smaller parties.
“The resignation of Chancellor Werner Faymann is a chance to change Austria and end the power cartel of the SPÖ and ÖVP.”
Before leaving, Mr. Faymann once again sharply defended his country’s stance in the ongoing refugee crisis. A major port of call for hundreds of thousands of refugees that traveled from Syria via Turkey, Greece and the Balkan countries, Austria initially allowed asylum seekers to pass through the country before moving on to Germany, Sweden and other European nations.
But earlier this year, Mr. Faymann’s government shifted its stance, spearheading a conference with Balkan nations that resulted in the bloc closing its borders to new arrivals. The decision has created a bottleneck in Greece, where most of the refugees have first arrived, but in Austria’s eyes, it has also forced Europe to agree on a common solution to the crisis.
Soon after Austria’s move, the European Union reached a controversial deal with Turkey that will see most asylum seekers sent back from Greece to the country in exchange for €3 billion in aid and Europe accepting asylum seekers that apply directly from Turkey.
None of this has helped Werner Faymann and the Austrian political establishment. The far-right Freedom Party has skillfully played on a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment gripping the country.
Mr. Hofer, the party’s candidate for president, has said he doesn’t want an “Islamization” of the country. He’s also criticized the Turkey deal, calling on Austria to leave the European Union if Turkey should ever join the 28-nation bloc.
Whether the Freedom Party’s rise could have been handled better is the key question for many in the Social Democratic party. Robert Musik, a prominent political author, on Monday suggested the FPÖ would not be where it is now had it not been for Mr. Faymann’s “180-degree turn to the right” in the refugee crisis.
Mr. Faymann hasn’t just been under pressure over the refugee crisis. Unemployment has also been on the rise in recent months, though at 6 percent Austria still has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. Some business groups have complained the government has been uncooperative when it comes to issues like tax reforms passed earlier this year.
“The chancellor never had an ear for our concerns,” said a manager at one listed Austrian company, who declined to be named.
Should one of the parties be forced to govern with the far-right following the next parliamentary elections, it wouldn’t be the first time. Austria’s FPÖ, under the late Jörg Haider, entered into a coalition government with the center-right ÖVP back in the late 1990s, marking the first time a far-right party gained power in Europe in the post-war period.
The experiment prompted Austria’s E.U. partners to take the unprecedented step of imposing diplomatic sanctions on Austria. The experiment in government didn’t end well for the FPÖ, however, as it became racked by infighting and saw its support plummet by the next election.
The Freedom Party is not the only party that could profit if new elections are called in Austria.
“The resignation of Chancellor Werner Faymann is a chance to change Austria and end the power cartel of the SPÖ and ÖVP,” said Matthias Strolz, head of the new center-right NEOS party, which is polling around 5 percent.
To turn the tide, Austria’s largest party looks likely to appoint a new leader from outside of politics. The Vienna daily newspaper Der Standard reported two potential successors to Mr. Faymann as chancellor: Gerhard Zeiler, the former chief executive of German media group RTL and of Austrian broadcaster ORF, and Christian Kern, a popular executive with the Austrian national railway.
The SPÖ leadership on Monday asked Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl to take over the party leadership on an interim basis until a permanent solution is found. Mr. Häupl said a permanent party leader would be nominated next week and put forward at a party convention in late June.
The country’s vice chancellor, Reinhold Mitterlehner of the ÖVP, will take over as chancellor in the meantime.
Christopher Cermak is an Austrian national and currently a Berlin-based editor for Handelsblatt Global Edition. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar, Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna, contributed to this story. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org