Across Europe, liberal principles are under pressure, Austrian democracy must not be put at risk

In a few weeks, Austrians will again go to the polls to elect a president – their representational and highly symbolic head of state. On May 23, they had elected former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen by a slim margin of 32,000 votes over far-right candidate Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPÖ). Then came the allegations of voting irregularities, then a polite rescheduling, then faulty ballot envelopes, and now half year later, the election is reset for December 4. If the FPÖ hoped to gain advantage from the delay, they miscalculated: In late September, High Court Judge Johannes Schnizer accused them of having planned the challenge before the election – an opinion he has refused to retract. Then Hofer was embarrassed by some compromising passages in a campaign manifesto, For a Free Austria.

And then, in an unprecedented move, Austria’s retiring president Heinz Fischer publicly declared his support for Van der Bellen. In a long essay, Eine Wortmeldung (A Request to be Heard) published September 25, Fischer expressed fears of growing populism. Austria’s democracy is “much more stable than it was in the time between the wars.  But it isn’t indestructible,” he warned. “It mustn’t be put in danger by hate speech, scapegoating, and overheated emotions, by carelessness with the Constitution and the rule of law.”

These are dangerous times for open societies, a toxic mix of economic insecurity and fear of change that leaves people paralyzed – so that a humanitarian crisis like immigration becomes an existential crisis of identity. So that internationalism is reduced to the juggernaut of globalization that feels impossible to control.

Across Europe – in the Netherlands, France, Poland – liberal principles are under pressure. Right next door in Hungary, the steady eroding of civil liberties under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continues with the closing of a leading opposition newspaper, even as Orbán declared “sweeping victory” in a low-vote referendum to reject EU migration policy.

In the U.K., many Brexit voters are no longer sure what they voted for, saying they knew the campaign promises – to restrict immigration and to redirect EU contributions to the National Health – were false or, at best, wildly exaggerated. They insist the issue was sovereignty: getting out from under those bureaucrats in Brussels. Yet even they quietly admit the importance of the European Union as the best hope for peace.

In 1935, returning to the U.S. from Germany, Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, a novel and play that imagines the rise of fascism in America. Restaged this fall by Berkeley Rep., and read in cities around the country, the parallels are uncanny. “Concerned about race riots, a huge gap between rich and poor, the stigmatizing of immigrants, global terror, and a right-wing extremist running for president,” they write, “It Can’t Happen Here, reads as if it was ripped out of today’s headlines.”

These next weeks in Austria are critical, for the presidency, the country, and for the future of Europe.

“The EU was, and is, a peace project,” wrote Fischer. “And as such, with all the problems, it is indispensible.”