On March 12th, Austrian citizens and political elites gathered at Heldenplatz, the public courtyard in front of Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. The date marks the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s “Anschluss”, or annexation, of Austria in 1938. On that date, Hitler commanded 200,000 solders to invade the country of his birth. 80 years later, Austrians convened at the spot of the Nazi dictator’s speech to reflect on the event.
The commemoration comes at a time of great tension for Austria’s coalition government. A recent emergence of populist leaders across Europe has lead to a heightened awareness of the nationalist sentiments that allowed Hitler to rise to prominence 80 years earlier. The growing appeal of populist leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, demonstrate that European populism is on the rise. With the 2017 election of Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the conservative Austrian People’s Party, some Austrians fear that Kurz, known for his hard stance on immigration, may lead their country down the path of Turkey and Hungary. Their fears are understandable – especially given their nation’s history. However, an understanding the Austrian government’s structure, the role of polarization, and the tenants of populism demonstrate that fears of Kurz becoming Europe’s next populist ruler are premature.
The Austrian government has survived a decades-long process of political evolution. Before the jolt of World War II, the First Republic of Austria (1918-1938) existed as a social-welfare state. Following the nation’s annexation by Germany in 1938, Austria’s Second Republic reverted to a republican government. Today, the government is composed of a directly elected (though mostly ceremonial) president, a federal chancellor (who, despite being a formally equal member of the president’s cabinet, is considered to hold most of political power) and two houses of parliament. The Austrian Parliament is composed of the powerful National Council (comprised of 183 members who are elected by popular vote) and the much less powerful Federal Council (comprised of 61 members elected through a system of proportional representation). The current presidency belongs to Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party member of the National Council who was elected to the presidency in 2017 as an independent after beating Norbert Hofer, a member of the right-wing Freedom Party. Adhering to a centrist-liberal ideology, Van der Bellen is a strong supporter of the EU and the legalization of gay marriage.
The direct election of Van der Bellen by the people indicates that democracy is alive and well in Austria. Robert Dahl believes that preferences flow from citizens to elites, and that the elites should work to advance the citizens’ preferences rather than tell them what those preferences should be. Dahl champions the importance of citizens’ ability to formulate their preferences, signify those preferences to the government, and to have those preference weighed equally. In the 2017 election, Austrian voters who shared Van der Bellen’s left-leaning views were able to formulate and communicate their preferences. Although the office of the president is mostly ceremonial, Van der Bellen does retain some powers (such as the ability to appoint cabinet members and the option to dissolve the powerful National Council) that allow him to ensure that the citizens’ preferences are equally weighed.
It is precisely this communication of preferences that has protected Austria’s leading political parties from polarization. Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has faced criticism for forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party. Labels such as “far-right” or “far-left” often signal polarization, which can pose significant dangers to democracies. Though polarization does not cause democratic erosion, it serves as a background condition by providing the tools for those in power to act undemocratically. Milan Svolik found that in polarized political environments, “electoral competition often confronts voters with a choice between democratic values and partisan interests, and . . . a significant fraction of the polarized electorate may be willing to sacrifice the former in favor of the latter”. While these dangers are real, critics should take comfort in the fact that the Freedom Party is following another one of Dahl’s tenants of democracy – responsiveness. After realizing that voters were unsupportive of the party’s anti-European Union stance, the party dropped that position.
While most accept that Austria remains a democracy, many are concerned that Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz may be Europe’s newest populist leader. At 31-years-old, Kurz is the youngest head of government in the world. Although he is chairman of the conservative Austrian People’s Party, claims of populism are often unfounded. In What is Populism? Jan-Werner Muller lays out tenants of a populist leader. For example, the populist claims that “they, and only they, represent the people”. However, Kurz makes no claims that he is the sole decision maker for Austria. He has clearly communicated that he intends to compromise with his political peers, stating that he will join left-leaning President Alexander Van der Bellen in supporting pro-Europe polices. Furthermore, Muller identifies “the core claim of populism” as the belief that “only some of the people are the real people”. Rather than represent a narrow, nationalist base, Kurz has defended a broader population by speaking out against the persecution of homosexuals.
As Austrians reflect on the events of March 12, 1938, they should be proud of political protections that have been established to avoid another populist dictatorship. Institutionally, their government structure allows the people to communicate their preferences to directly elected officials. They should take comfort in the policy compromises offered by the “extreme” Freedom Party (a sign against polarization). Finally, they should be encouraged that Sebastian Kurz, their current federal chancellor, has not limited himself to representing a narrow, populist definition of “the people”. To be sure, these conditions could change at any time. Austrians should be leery of shifts in the government’s responsiveness, proposals to eliminate direct election of leaders, and changes in rhetoric that narrow the definition of whom the government represents. For the time being, Austrian leaders and citizens should use this 80th commemoration of the “Anschluss” of Austria as a reminder of what once was, and if they are not vigilant, what could be again.
**Photo by Peterwuttke, “Heldenplatz”, GNU Free Documentation License