American University

Gatekeeping doesn’t work, at least not in Austria by Alec Wood

On 26 January 2017 Alexander Van der Bellen, former party spokesman and chairman of the Greens, became the 9th president of the Federal Republic of Austria. For many, this was a sign that the political center had held. That when put under pressure, the political establishment of the left and right would forsake short term political gains for the general good. This is not the case. Since the presidential elections of 2016, the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (the Freedom Party of Austria, FPÖ) has made substantial political gains and in the process, Austria’s democracy has suffered.

What is Gatekeeping?

In How Democracy Dies, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide a prescription to the politicians of the world. To save democracy, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, two things are necessary: gatekeeping and mutual toleration. Both terms are self-explanatory. Gatekeeping, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, “requires that mainstream parties isolate and defeat extremist forces.” Mutual toleration, on the other hand, requires that parties recognize one another as legitimate political actors.

Levitsky and Ziblatt cite the Austrian Presidential elections of 2016 as a perfect example of gatekeeping, yet I believe its aftermath reveals that gatekeeping is not an adequate solution in Austria. Gatekeeping would require the political establishment to forsake mutual toleration.

Why wasn’t Gatekeeping Successful in Austria?

The Austrian presidential election of 2016 was not an example of gatekeeping, because, for many Austrians, Norbert Hofer and the FPÖ are legitimate political actors who do not threaten democracy.

Politicians from the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (The Social Democratic Party of Austria, SPÖ), Austria’s center-left party, and the Österreichische Volkspartei (Austrian People’s Party, ÖVP), Austria’s center-right party, rallied against Norbert Hofer because of his inflammatory rhetoric. It’s important, however, to remember that Norbert Hofer was a longtime politician. Before running for president in 2016, Hofer served in local government from 1997 to 2006 and then in the Austrian Parliament from 2006 to 2016. Before the elections, Norbert Hofer was not a controversial figure.

Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that Hofer posed a threat to democracy, however, Hofer’s critics did not view him as threat to democracy. While they may have derided him for his use of fear and hate to mobilize voters, they did not directly criticize Hofer for being anti-democratic. Instead, their opposition was rooted in differences in policy and worldview. While many prominent politicians came out against Hofer, neither the ÖVP nor the SPÖ publicly endorsed his opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen.

When Alexander Van der Bellen won the presidency, Levitsky and Ziblatt labeled the Austrian presidential elections as a successful example of gatekeeping. However, the results of the following 2017 parliamentary elections reveal that the situation is more complex.

While Austrian politicians prevented Norbert Hofer from becoming president in 2016, they were unable to stop the FPÖ from becoming the third strongest party in the Austrian Parliament. Winning 25.97 % of the vote in the 2017 legislative elections, the FPÖ experienced its second best electoral performance since its founding in 1956. This electoral whirlwind led Sebastian Kurz, then chairman of the ÖVP, to start coalition talks with the FPÖ.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The FPÖ is an establishment party and just as right-wing voters view the FPÖ as a legitimate right-wing party, so does the ÖVP.

Because the ÖVP and its prominent politicians did not view Hofer and the FPÖ as a threat to democracy, their condemnation of Hofer was not gatekeeping. To actively call a long-term FPÖ politician anti-democratic would have required ÖVP politicians to forsake mutual toleration. As conflictual as it sounds, openly campaigning against Hofer as a risk to democracy would have been non-democratic, as the FPÖ represented a large swathe of the Austrian electorate.

Looking Forward

If gatekeeping doesn’t work in Austria, what other options are there? What should be done to keep the FPÖ from power? If Austrian politicians are serious about addressing the country’s slide to the radical right, they need to address several real democratic deficits.

Austria is not unique in Europe. Like other EU citizens, Austrians are slowly becoming disenchanted with the EU. This is most prescient in terms of migration policy. During its EU presidency, Austria pushed a hardline migration agenda. This culminated in the fall of 2018, when Austria joined Hungary and Poland and refused to sign the Global Compact for Migration.

While Austria has consistently moved further and further to the right since the installation of the right-wing government in 2017, for many Austrians, their rejection of the EU’s migration-friendly policy is more concerned with sovereignty than actual disagreements over migration. Heinz Christian-Strache, Vice Chancellor and member of the FPÖ, echoed this sentiment arguing that, “Austria must remain sovereign on migration.”

The recent success of the eurosceptic FPÖ shows that Austrians are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the EU. Austrians, like many other Europeans, view the European Union as increasingly technocratic and unaccountable. If this perception doesn’t change, then the populist FPÖ will continue to thrive.

Cas Mudde suggests that to combat the rise of populists, “political parties … should seek to propose inclusive visions and programs that deliver benefits for all citizens.” Members of the Initiative Mehrheitswahlrecht und Demokratiereform (Initiative for Majority Voting and Democratic Reform, IMWD), led by a former ÖVP politician Heinrich Neisser, hope to do just this. The IMWD are pushing for policies that are more inclusive and bring the everyday citizen into politics.

It’ll be interesting to see if groups like IMWD will shift the political debate. Either way, until Austria addresses its own shortcomings, the FPÖ will continue to be successful and Austria’s democracy will hang in the balance.

*Photo by Michael Gubi, “Spazieren in Wien” (Flickr), Creative Commons Zero License


  1. Kyle Friant

    April 8, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    You did a wonderful job in explaining gate-keeping and the outlining the background in the Austrian election. I would agree that the actors that should be protecting democracy from Hofer and his party are not doing their job. You made a good point about how this is a broader trend in Europe, as well. When popular support for a previously fringe party rises to significant levels, it is difficult for gate-keeping to continue as well. One example is President Trump who, when starting at 1% in the polls, found a lot of resistance from across the spectrum of institutions. However, when he became the nominee of one of the two major parties, any pushback for the sake of gate-keeping began to be villainized by one side of the aisle. This is the case throughout Europe, where Brexit went from the “fringe” movement of UKIP to being championed by the majority of conservative party members.

  2. Emily Morrison

    May 7, 2019 at 9:06 pm

    I think you make great points about the failure of gatekeeping in Austria. I agree with you that political parties and actors are in a difficult position with regards to gatekeeping–particularly if a rising political “threat” may not appear to be one to the general public. I think some of the proposals you include at the end of your post are particularly compelling ways to combat this problem. Perhaps if citizens are brought into the everyday nature of politics, they will be more attentive to potential threats and the rise of populist figures. I think the practices of gatekeeping are still important though, even if they are not always entirely effective. It is important for major political actors to call out extremist parties and work together for the health of the democracy as a whole. Given that politicians are strategic actors (and voters aren’t), however, I am left fearing that gatekeeping practices will continue to fail and that extremist parties will continue to find footholds in power.

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