Monday, 23 May 2016

Austria and the USA - who can stop the extreme right?

Norbert Hofer, of the Austrian Freedom Party, has built his success on populist, racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. He has been described as the Austrian Donald Trump. He was widely expected to become the EU's first far-right head of state today. In the event, he narrowly lost the election for president of Austria by a tiny margin. 

Opponents of the far-right can thank Alexander Van der Bellen for stopping Hofer. 
Van der Bellen did not come from either of the two centrist parties which have dominated Austrian politics for decades; their candidates did not even make it to the final run-off vote. He stood as an independent and is an environmentalist, left-leaning former leader of the Green Party. 

This runs counter to the conventional wisdom which would hold that the centre-ground is the best place from which to win elections. That may well have been true when Tony Blair, for example, won electoral victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005 but in the political world of 2016 it is clearly no longer invariably true.

This is partly a result of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. In the years before 2008, although inequality was widening, it had little political significance because the middle and the poor in society were mostly seeing their material welfare improve too. 

However, since 2008, the elite - dubbed “the 1%” by Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz - have prospered mightily whilst the middle has seen their economic position stagnate and become precarious and the poor have been pushed into destitution and to the food banks.

Millions of people across the Western democracies, have lost trust in the elites who have governed them for decades. They are angry. They feel they have been ripped-off, betrayed.

Politics has also changed due to the internet and the growth of social media. Without this, it is doubtful that Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, for example, could have made the political progress they have, given that the mainstream media in the USA and UK is dominated by people whose interests and world-view are strongly opposed to the socialism they both espouse.

Millions of people in the Western democracies are angry and hurting. Populists of the right tap into that hurt and harness it, often by turning it into hatred directed against a group seen as the “other”, often immigrants.

In November, there will be a far more significant presidential election than the one in Austria. Some polls in the USA, now place Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton. 

The polls also show that the person best placed to stop Trump - and significantly more likely than Clinton to do so - is the socialist, radical left, Bernie Sanders. 

Just as Van der Bellen was able to appeal to voters angry at the elites that have governed Austria for decades better than the establishment parties could, so Sanders may be able to do the same in the USA better than Clinton, who is close to being the ultimate member of the American political elite.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for another interesting piece, Tom. But given Clinton's hold over the super-delegates it is surely hypothetical? We may well find ourselves facing a similar problem in France in 2017, with the threat of Marine le Pen making it to the second round of the presidential election. Sadly, our Van der Bellen/Sanders figure has yet to emerge in France.
    Best wishes, Richard