Alexander Van der Bellen

Austrian President-Elect Alexander Van der Bellen

Two European countries went to the polls on Sunday. Neither was electing a government, but both were closely watched for signs of not just their own future, but that of the European Union as a whole.

The result from Austria has been taken unequivocally as good news. Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Greens leader, defeated Norbert Hofer, of the far-right Freedom Party, in the second round of the country’s presidential election.

When the election was originally held, in May, Van der Bellen scraped in with 50.3% of the vote, but that result was annulled due to various small irregularities. In Sunday’s re-run, somewhat against expectations, he improved his performance to 51.7%. Postal votes are expected to bring that up to around 53%.

Still, when you’re running against a serious neo-fascist, 53% is nothing to write home about. Like many other signs this year, particularly last month’s US election, it warns of a rising tide of xenophobic right-wing populism.

Austria is near the front line of Europe’s response to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis (as Metternich said, Asia begins on the road east from Vienna), and Hofer’s fiercely anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance was seen as his biggest strength. Van der Bellen (himself the son of refugees) stressed, by contrast, themes of humanity, democracy and European integration.

But as with the US, the real story is not the independent strength of the far right, but the way that the centre-right rallied to it. Hofer had 35.1% of the vote in the first round; to get as close as he did, he must have attracted most of the support of the centre-right candidate, Andreas Khol, who was eliminated with 11.1%.

Just as mainstream Republicans, despite their dislike of Donald Trump, could not bring themselves to support a Democrat, so it looks as if moderate centre-right voters in Austria could not abide the thought of a Green president, regardless of the alternative.

It’s also important to remember that Austria’s presidency is mostly a ceremonial position, so many voters may have felt free to indulge a protest vote. But the symbolism of having an elected head of state from the far right — and in Austria of all places, which still stirs memories of the 1930s — would have been profound.

The other country voting on Sunday was Italy, where centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had put a package of constitutional changes to referendum and promised to treat the result as a vote of confidence.

The move backfired badly. The referendum was decisively defeated, with a “no” vote of 59.1%. Renzi promptly announced his resignation, which will take effect in the next few days after the government’s budget has been passed.

It’s not at all clear what will happen next; Renzi’s coalition may attempt to carry on without him until scheduled elections in early 2018. But it’s more likely that the country will go to the polls next year — meaning that the big three remaining EU countries (Germany, France and Italy) will all have elections in the same year.

Italy’s opposition is a mixed bag: there’s the populist and Eurosceptic Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo; the anti-immigrant and quasi-separatist Northern League; Forza Italia, the vehicle of convicted fraudster and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, seen by many as the prototype for Trump; plus more traditional neo-fascists and far-left groups.

Even if they won a majority between them, it’s hard to see how a coherent government could emerge. It’s also uncertain what the electoral system will look like, since the outgoing government has promised changes to try to avoid the prolonged uncertainty that followed the 2013 election.

Renzi’s constitutional changes, had they been passed, would have had two main components: the evisceration of the Senate, turning it into a small and toothless house of review appointed by the regions in place of the current powerful elected body, and the abolition of the provinces, an intermediate level of government between regions and municipalities.

The idea was to streamline the process of government, making it easier to pass the sort of reforms that might overhaul Italy’s stagnant economy. But with authoritarian populism on the rise, this was not necessarily the best time to be dismantling safeguards (originally designed against a return of fascism) and allowing government to be less representative and less accountable.

Hence what I call the authoritarian paradox: the forces that were most eager to defeat Renzi’s reformist and pro-European government were the very same forces that could make the most disturbing use of a more “efficient” constitution with fewer checks and balances.

One hopes that the centre-left will learn the lesson, and that the next reform package will be something that the forces of democracy can support unequivocally.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey