Monday, December 05, 2016

Austrian's Right-Wing Rejection: The "Trump-Effect" in Europe?

Right-Wing Austrian candidate Norbert Hofer
There was a palpable collective sigh of relief on Sunday after Austrian voters rejected the far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer in a closely-watched presidential election with political and social implications that echo around the globe.

As the winner, former Austrian Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen, was quoted in an article posted on, the rejection of Hofer's extremist views and anti-immigrant nationalism was a reflection of voter's desire for an Austria based on the principles of "freedom, equality and solidarity".

While I'm no expert on European or Austrian politics, my sense is that many Austrian people's decision to rebuke a candidate from a party created by ex-Nazis (really) was at least partly influenced by the divisive and troubling aftermath of Donald Trump's election here in the U.S. - and the fear and apprehension his vision represents for a divided nation that overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton based on the popular vote.

Even though the role of president in Austrian government is largely symbolic, Austrian voter's rejection of an anti-immigrant right-wing nationalist like Hofer can also be viewed as a larger political snapshot of the European mindset in the wake of the shocking "Brexit" vote by British voters to leave the European Union back in June.

The results of that election were based in large part on a wave of right-wing anti-immigrant hysteria and irrational immigrant-bashing by some British politicians that was similar in tone to Donald Trump's divisive campaign rhetoric in 2015 and 2016.

Newly-elected Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney
While Austria and Britain are very different European countries, the selection of the more moderate Van der Bellen as president could be seen as something of a push-back against Britain's nationalist Brexit vote.

Interestingly, that same voter push-back was seen in the recent upset victory of Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney in Richmond; a well-to-do suburban community just outside London that had previously been a conservative stronghold.

The "by-election" for the British Parliament seat she won was scheduled after the previous Conservative Party MP Zac Goldsmith, an avid Brexit supporter, resigned his seat in protest over the construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

Liberal Democrats only make up nine out of the 650 seats in the British House of Commons, well short of the unprecedented 57 seats they won back in the 2010 elections when they formed a coalition with the Conservative Party under former Prime Minister David Cameron.

But they wield political influence and impact policy decisions, and the fact that the more left-leaning and progressive Olney won the seat in Richmond is seen by many as a signal that many British voters remain wary of the decision to pull England out of the EU - and the decidedly nasty anti-immigrant stench left in the air.

Did wariness of Trump's election victory in the U.S. play a part in Olney's upset win in Britain?

Again, it's hard to delve into the minds of Austrian and British voters, but the dark shadow of the Third Reich and Adolph Hitler's rise to power still looms like a specter.

A British protester near the port of Dover
So clearly there are large segments of both nations that are made uncomfortable by the growing intolerance that has accompanied widespread vilification of immigrants in Europe.

Just as there is alarm over the resurgence of right-wing extremist groups angling for legitimacy and political representation in various European nations including Italy, Germany and France.

There's no question Trump's election, his lack of diplomatic savvy, choices of top advisers and boneheaded foreign policy overtures have raised concerns in Europe, Asia and beyond.

So as an American it's a relief to see these recent election wins by more moderate, progressive politicians in Austria and Britain.

Remember, the 2018 Congressional elections in this country aren't that far off, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, 33 of the 100 Senate seats and 39 governor's seats are in play too - based on what we've seen of the president-elect so far, we may be seeing a "Trump-Effect" of our own on a much bigger scale here in the U.S.

With some hard work, organizing and a little luck the recent election results in Austria and Britain could be a glimpse of the November mid-term elections here in the U.S. less than 24 months from now.

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