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A party founded by Nazis just lost the Austrian election — barely

Austria Holds Runoff In Presidential Election
Norbert Hofer, Austrian Freedom Party candidate for president.
(Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Austria's far-right Freedom Party was founded in 1956, its leadership full of former Nazis. Though it has twice been part of coalition governments, the party has been relatively marginal in Austrian politics.

But it just came within a hair's breadth of winning control of Austria's presidency. In runoff results announced on Monday morning, the Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, lost to the Green Party's Alexander Van der Bellen — by a 0.6 percentage point margin:

(Europe Elects/Austrian Ministry of the Interior)

To be clear, Austria's president is a historically ceremonial position — the leader of the parliamentary majority, called the federal chancellor, generally wields power. That person is Christian Kern of the center-left Social Democratic Party.

And the Freedom Party isn't openly fascist, nor are its leaders Nazis. But it's still a very hard-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim organization — to the point of being outright racist. And the fact that it came this close to victory in a national election illustrates just how powerful the far right is becoming across Europe.

The Austrian Freedom Party is riding an anti-immigrant wave

Austria Holds Runoff In Presidential Election (Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)

The Freedom Party's power has ebbed and flowed over the course of modern Austrian history. In 1999, it won 26.9 percent of the national parliamentary vote under the leadership of Jörg Haider, a firebrand who once celebrated the Nazis for their "decent job creation policies." This led to it joining a coalition led by the center-right People's Party in 2000.

Haider won by railing against Austria's two dominant political parties, the People's Party and the Social Democratic Party. A major part of his complaint was Austria's relatively open immigration policy: In 2003, 12.5 percent of Austrian residents were foreign-born. Haider accused the mainstream parties of permitting "foreign infiltration."

Haider died in 2008, shortly after his party collapsed to just 11 percent in the 2006 elections. But the Freedom Party has made a comeback in recent years.

"The [Freedom Party's] support is steadily growing: for more than a year it has topped every representative poll, being consistently backed by around 30 per cent of the respondents," political scientists Philip Rathgeb and Fabio Wolkenstein write at the London School of Economics' Europe blog.

According to Rathgeb and Wolkenstein, there are a number of reasons for this, including a slow economy and a political stalemate between the two dominant parties that has stymied policymaking. But immigration is a major part of the story.

Austria's longstanding nativist streak came to the fore in the summer of 2015, when the European refugee crisis became the continent's dominant political issue. The Freedom Party has cast Syrian and other Muslim refugees as a threat to Christian-European civilization. This message has clearly resonated with Austrian voters, a majority of whom think their country is on the wrong track.

"We don’t want an Islamization of Europe," Heinz-Christian Strache, the Freedom Party's leader, told Austria’s public broadcaster in an interview (per the New York Times). "We don’t want our Christian-Western culture to perish."

Freedom Party pressure was so severe that the previous Social Democratic chancellor, Werner Faymann, reversed his pro-refugee policy, closing Austria's borders to refugees and asylum seekers. Initially, that wasn't enough to stop the Freedom Party: It won a plurality in the first round of Austria's presidential election in April, forcing a runoff between Hofer and Van der Bellen.

Happily, Van der Bellen won. But the closeness of the race illustrates that the Freedom Party is still troublingly popular and influential.

"Austrian voters are likely rally around whomever [Hofer's] opponent is in an attempt to halt the party’s rise," the Financial Times's Ralph Atkins wrote in a prescient piece in April. "But Vienna’s policy reversal over immigration showed the party’s growing influence over Austria policies."

This reflects a troubling Europe-wide trend

The Freedom Party has for some time been Europe's most effective far-right party. But it's far from alone — and evidence suggests that support for far-right parties has grown in the past several years. That's almost certainly a result of the refugee crisis.

Der Spiegel has a nice map on this, showing the countries where far-right parties have a presence in parliament (yellow dots) or are actually part of the government (red dots). It turns out the xenophobic far right has surged in countries as diverse as Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, and Hungary:

(Der Spiegel)

These parties have, in most cases, ridden the European refugee and migrant crisis to power. Austrians, like many Europeans, have been skeptical of immigration for some time. But the huge surge in migrants last year dramatically inflamed these sentiments — leading to a rise in the far right's poll numbers. Italy's Northern League, for example, is polling at four times what it was in 2013.

Political science research shows that the support for the European far right is driven principally by fear of immigration.

Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, a comparative politics professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, examined seven European countries with far-right parties in a 2008 paper. Specifically, she was looking to see what drove people to the populist right: dissatisfaction with the economy, distrust in political institutions, or anti-immigrant sentiment.

Her findings were unambiguous: "As immigration policy preferences become more restrictive, the probability of voting for the populist right increases dramatically," Ivarsflaten found. By contrast, voters with right-wing economic views were barely more likely to vote for the far right than other voters. Ditto those who didn't trust politicians very much, as the below charts make clear:

Y-axis is probability of voting for a far-right party; x-axis is the level of support for restrictive immigration policies, right-wing economic views, etc.
(Elisabeth Ivarsflaten)

"This study therefore to a large extent settles the debate about which grievances unite all populist right parties," Ivarsflaten concluded. "The answer is the grievances arising from Europe’s ongoing immigration crisis."

The immigration crisis today is, of course, much worse than it was when Ivarsflaten's piece was published in 2008. Hence why the Freedom Party and its far-right brethren are on the march throughout Europe.