Reports of the end of Austria’s post-war idyll have been greatly exaggerated. But this presidential election may finally be the turning point. For the first time, instead of the Social-Democrats (SPÖ) and Conservatives (ÖVP), a right-wing populist Norbert Hofer (FPÖ), and a former Green party leader Alexander Van der Bellen take the stage as presidential candidates. Austria – a country used to consensus – has lived through an acrimonious four weeks of polarization in the run-up to this vote.
More immediately, however, this election has also resulted in a political earthquake on the federal level. Without forewarning, after Werner Faymann muddled through seven and a half years as chancellor, he stepped down May 9 and was replaced a week later by Christian Kern, erstwhile general manager of the national railways (ÖBB). Kern’s first TV interview was a breath of fresh air for many. His pragmatic can-do spirit is rare in Austrian politics, rivaling that of other European Social-Democrats like Matteo Renzi in Italy or Emmanuel Macron in France. It takes a strong leader to fight the battle for social justice against the far-right populists chafing at the bit all across the continent.
With all crises comes opportunity. Austria and Vienna could again be the laboratory of modernity. Europeans should watch closely to see if Kern can convince centrist voters to “share part of the journey” as Austria’s celebrated Bruno Kreisky said; or whether an Austria led by the likes of Hofer or H.C. Strache would join the Orbáns of the continent.