Friday, 10 October 2008

An unpleasant way to make a point

It is reasonable to infer a country's character by whom it elects

Fans of progressive socialism have recently had little to cheer about. The National Council elections in Austria, held on the 28th September, yielded a result that the far-right have celebrated with glee. While the largest percentage (29.4%) of the vote went to the Social Democratic Party, the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria secured 28.5% of the vote between them.

Neither party is particularly charming. Readers may remember Jörg Haider and his Freedom Party from 2000, when success at the polls led the party to be part of the ruling coalition. Although at the time the issue garnered much coverage, perhaps enhanced by 14 EU countries giving Austria the cold shoulder, the world's press seemed to assume that Mr Haider's resignation from the ruling coalition in February 2000 marked the end of this blot on Austria's copybook.

It was not to be. Mr Haider was a strong figure in the Freedom Party, and as is sometimes the case with such personality politics, he became frustrated with the Freedom Party, left and founded the Alliance for the Future of Austria. While this split the far-right vote, it also created two parties of some strength to take on the somewhat cumbersome coalition between the Social Democrats and the Austrian People's Party.

Both parties stand on anti-EU-expansion (or more accurately anti-Turkey), anti-immigration and anti-asylum platforms. For a country that is surrounded by eight other nations it is more than disappointing to see Austria for Austrians on billboards advertising Mr Haider's party. Let us be clear - Mr Haider is not just a right-leaning pragmatist. He is a distasteful man who sees nothing to be ashamed of in the SS.

Many in the press have blamed the faults of the Social Democrats and the People's Party for pushing the populace to vote for the far right. There is probably a grain of truth in this; at least that disappointment at the larger parties has encouraged people to vote elsewhere. There is even some truth that parties must be able to talk about immigration.

The Economist gets it partly right by noting that these issues cannot become the sole preserve of the far-right, but although they insist this should not mean pandering to xenophobia, the bar should surely be set a little higher. Immigration, tolerance of others and denunciation of the Nazis did not just happen - they are policy choices, and the benefits should be extolled. Parties do not need to adopt a wholesale shift of position, merely provide countering arguments to the far-right.

However we must acknowledge and tackle racism and xenophobia where we see it. It is remarkable to see several publications claim this vote is a punishment of the existing regime (and thus not an endorsement of racism), but decide exactly the opposite about the rejection of the Lisbon treaty. It is tough to believe that the result of an Irish plebiscite on a treaty that alters the relationship and majority-requirements of legislative bodies is representative of voters' true feelings while the same can not be said of a general election in Austria.

It is a step too far to say that Austria should now be treated as a pariah state, but it has shamed itself, and its citizens must mostly be held responsible. Of the fourteen parties that were on offer, almost 30% of the electorate chose to vote for parties that have frightening sympathies with Europe's twentieth century disgrace and plainly xenophobic views. Some publications have seen that one cannot simply blame the politicians. Let us hope that the people of Austria realise this as well.

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