Election day is not just a fateful for Austria itself, which heads to the poll Sunday, but for all of Europe. The reason for that is simple: Austria's next president could be a fascist.
The Return of European Fascism
The winner of the first election round was Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-winged extremist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Hofer had more than 35 percent of the electorate behind him while the other candidates – especially those of the established political parties – lost big. Second place went to Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green politician who used to be a university professor. Thus, the runoff will take place between two candidates who do not come from the established governing parties, Conservatives and Social Democrats.
The main problem relating this point is the fact that Hofer is a leading ideologue of a far-right party which can be justifiably described as right-winged extremist, and not just as "populist," like many media outlets and analysts describe the Freedom Party these days.
There are obvious reasons for that. Apart from the fact that the roots of the party itself are deeply connected with the Nazis – the FPÖ functioned as a holding center for former Nazis after World War II – events in recent years prove the party's extremist views.
During the lead of Heinz-Christian Strache, the party became increasingly Islamophobic and opened its gates for German National student leagues and fraternities who often act as links with neo-Nazi groups. Meanwhile, leading FPÖ politicians are deeply connected with these far-right circles.
Strache himself is a regular contributor for right-winged extremist media outlets. His articles appear next to those of known neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers. Considering that the FPÖ leader is known for his controversial past with neo-Nazi groups, these facts do not appear surprising.
Although presidential candidate Hofer presented himself, especially during recent debates in Austrian television, as a reliable person, he is not much different than his party's head. Recently, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a German daily, pointed out that in 2011, Hofer has been interviewed by a magazine close to the NPD, a well-known neo-Nazi party in Germany.
In the interview, Hofer described Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian biologist who was a Nazi icon because of his race studies and demanded the "eradication of ethical inferiors," a "model for every politician."
The established parties failed
Although the Freedom Party's extremist stances are known, they succeeded in one election after the other during the last decade. The presidential elections are the climax of this success – and there are certain reasons for that.
It became crystal clear that Austria's political establishment totally failed during the last years. At the moment, many people do not notice any difference between both Conservatives and Social Democrats. For years, both parties are ruling through a grand coalition, mainly pushing political problems toward each other.
Especially when the so called "refugee crisis" began last year, many people noticed that their government did not have any idea how to act. Instead, and once again, the FPÖ appeared with radical solutions, such as securing the borders with the Bundesheer – the Austrian military – and to deport "economic migrants."
After rejecting such measures at first, the government in Vienna adopted the right-wing demands. For that reason, we witness at the moment how Austrian soldiers "defend" the country's borders to Italy and Slovenia. Besides, a fence against refugees has been built on these borders.
In this context, it might be notable that in Austria, the president is not just a representative leader. Instead he or she is equipped with various political powers, such as dissolving the government or leading the country's army.
The alternative problem
According to recent polls, Hofer might receive all these powers on Sunday. This is also his opponent's fault. During the last few weeks, Alexander Van der Bellen did not campaign successfully. "I'm not Hofer," seemed to be the one and only message of the former Green.
However, many people, especially the country's liberals and leftists, bet on Van der Bellen. Nevertheless, a real, leftist alternative practically does not exist in Austria. Van der Bellen, who supported Communists and Social Democracts in his youth and taught economics on various universities, was not even able to make a clear stance against the European Union's planned TTIP trade agreement with the United States. Instead, the topic was – like many other classical issues of the left – tackled by Hofer and his right-wingers.
The failing of the ruling parties and the nonexistence of a serious left could lead to Hofer's victory. Such a scenario would complete Austria's path back to fascism, which would be a horrifying prospect not just for the country itself, but for whole Europe.