epa05276001 Right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) presidential candidate Norbert Hofer (C) celebrates at the party headquarters after the Austrian presidential elections in Vienna, Austria, 24 April 2016. Exit polls suggested a lead for right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer. Voters could choose between six candidates. Around 6.4 million Austrians aged over 16 were eligible to vote to elect the ninth head of state of the Austrian Second Republic, founded in 1945. EPA/FILIP SINGER
Right-wing Austrian Freedom party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer © EPA

An illiberal political order is taking shape in central Europe. It is contemptuous of political pluralism, the rule of law and civil liberties. It thrives on anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia, but its appeal is wider than that and its social roots are deeper. For the EU’s future, few questions are more burning than whether Europe’s leaders possess the collective unity and strength to halt the march of illiberalism.

The new order emerged in Hungary after the 2010 election victory of Viktor Orban, prime minister, and his conservative nationalist Fidesz party. It scored a second success last October when Law and Justice (PiS), a party similar to Fidesz in method and temperament, swept into office in Poland under Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Both parties buttress their rule by subverting the independence of the judiciary, the media and other pillars of a free society.

Illiberalism has also made inroads in Slovakia, but the likeliest domino to fall next is Austria. In Vienna the insurgent forces of illiberalism are picking off their opponents with apparent ease and striding confidently towards the corridors of power.

On May 22 Austrians will elect a new president. The winner may well be Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom party. The most telegenic representative of central Europe’s advancing illiberal order, he came top with more than 35 per cent of the vote last month in the election’s first round. It was a record for the far right in nationwide Austrian elections since 1945.

Even if Mr Hofer were to lose to his opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen, a Greens-backed independent, it would not disguise the fact that Austria’s postwar two-party political system has irretrievably broken down, opening the door to the far right. The share of the vote captured by the Social Democrats and the centre-right People’s party shrank to 50 per cent in Austria’s 2013 parliamentary election from almost 80 per cent in 2002. Austrian illiberalism is refuelling itself on Europe’s refugee crisis, but for at least 20 years it has feasted on a decaying party establishment whose natural habitat is a bygone era of political patronage and social deference.

In last month’s ballot, Austria’s two hegemonic parties did not even manage a combined 25 per cent of the vote. It was their worst result in a presidential election. Like Fidesz and PiS, the Freedom party attracts disenchanted voters of the left as well as the moderate right. Like them, the Freedom party bangs the nationalist drum hard, but it is less obsessed than Fidesz with the ethnic exclusiveness of the nation and less concerned than PiS about Catholic values.

The outlook for the main Austrian parties darkened on Monday when Werner Faymann, the Social Democratic chancellor, resigned because of his party’s internal divisions. It seems only a matter of time before the Social Democrats’ grand coalition with the People’s party falls apart. Austria’s next parliamentary elections are due in September 2018, but they may take place earlier. The Freedom party leads in opinion polls with more than 30 per cent support.

In short, there is every prospect that Austria will soon have a far-right head of state and a government in which the far right is the senior partner. Nothing like this has happened in a European democracy since the defeat of Nazism. Why is modern central Europe such fertile soil for illiberalism, and why is the EU, painfully conscious of this trend, unlikely to do much about it?

Having spent four decades under communism until 1989, Hungary and Poland are different cases from Austria. The transition to democracy, capitalism and EU membership modernised their economies and significantly lifted overall living standards. For some people, however, free-market competition and globalisation served to sharpen economic insecurity and social inequality.

Less well-off voters blamed post-communist centre-left governments for the hardships that accompanied the market economy and EU entry. Mr Orban and Mr Kaczynski have reaped the rewards, depicting themselves as champions of social justice and deflecting attention from their assault on their nations’ liberal constitutional orders.

The EU’s hands appear to be tied. The European Commission, the executive arm, launched an inquiry in January into the rule of law in Poland. According to Article 7 of the EU’s basic treaty, a government whose policies threaten democratic values can be punished with sanctions — but only if all other EU states agree. Mr Orban would block sanctions on Poland all day long if matters went that far, and Mr Kaczynski would return the favour if ever Hungary became a target.

As it happens, Hungary has escaped formal investigation because Fidesz belongs to the European People’s party, the biggest group in the European Parliament. The EPP has thrown a protective cloak around Mr Orban. In any case, EU governments have guilty memories of a bungled attempt in 2000 to bully Austria with sanctions. It is almost as if the EU’s own liberal virtues are keeping central Europe safe for illiberalism.

tony.barber@ft.com

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