Sunday, April 24, 2016

Is Austria About to Elect a Radical Right President?

Austrian voters went to the polls today in the first round of presidential elections, and the surprising result was the strong performance of Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) candidate, who finished with around 37% of the vote--much higher than the ~25% that pre-election polls projected. This result puts him on the verge of an electoral breakthrough for the FPÖ, albeit for control of a largely ceremonial position. 

Why the Strong Showing?
The literature on radical right party support typically finds that their voters are older, male, white, and less educated than the rest of the electorate. The general idea is that they have been 'left behind' by economic and social changes of the past several decades: they have suffered job and income losses due to globalization and technological change, while they have seen their communities and social norms change as a result of immigration. Sensing a consensus in favor of European integration and immigration on the center-left and center-right, these voters have turned to the radical right, which promises to stop and undo these trends.

Aside from the question of age, there is little to challenge that narrative so far. But the question is how he broke through the usual 20-25% level that FPÖ receive. My initial thought was that it was a low turnout election, which might have benefited him for having a core of strongly committed voters. However, that was not the case: turnout was around 68%, up from 2010 and consistent with 2004.

There are certainly other, political, factors at play. Voters are dissatisfied with the current  SPÖ/ÖVP coalition government, as evidenced by the fact that the SPÖ and ÖVP candidates combined to receive only about one-fourth of the vote. The second-placed candidate is a member of the Green Party, and the third-placed candidate is an independent. So, clearly, there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the incumbents.

However, this overlooks the issue on the minds of many Austrians: immigration.

'Anxious Politics' in Austria  
Two strands of important recent work in political psychology have examined the role that (1) dispositional traits and (2) emotions play in shaping attitudes and political behavior. 

In that first vein, work has shown that individuals who are disposed to prioritize security and to promote the welfare of one's social in-group are more likely to support the Republican Party in the US, Donald Trump in the current Republican primary, and radical right parties in West Europe. This is surely at the core of Hofer support in this election. In my own ongoing research, which includes Austrian data, I find that individuals who prioritize security values (i.e., defending against crime or social disorder) more highly and who do not prioritize universal values (i.e., treating all people equally regardless of nationality, etc) are more likely to vote for radical right parties.

However, emotions also play an important role in shaping citizens' attitudes and behavior. An excellent recent book by Albertson & Gadarian explores the role of anxiety in shaping public opinion in the US. When people are anxious (about terrorism, immigration, etc), they are more likely to support protective and punitive policies. Albertson & Gadarian do not look at the effect of anxiety on support for candidates or parties, but it seems reasonable to hypothesize that it would lead to support for parties that adopt more protective positions on issues like immigration and terrorism. This accords with Hetherington & Suhay's findings that non-authoritarian voters embrace authoritarian policies when they feel threatened by terrorism.

Of course, those perceptions of threat are shaped by a combination of the actual political context (i.e., is there a threat of terrorism?) and messages from political elites and the media (i.e., is the media reporting a lot of stories about potential threats?)

One would imagine that Austrian voters have been subjected to a high level of threatening messages in the past six months: the refugee crisis and the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels are receiving a lot of media coverage and are the subject of FPÖ campaigning. So we should expect that (1) more Austrians than in the past are worried about immigration and threat of terror, and (2) these anxious citizens citizens voted in large numbers for Hofer. 

Unfortunately, I don't have the data to test those claims directly. But data from the 2013 Austrian (Parliamentary) Election Study provide some insight. Below is a chart showing the mean responses to four questions and one scale for respondents who reported voting FPÖ and those voting for other parties. The four questions are:

  • When thinking about immigration, how worried does the respondent feel? (1=not at all, 4=very)
  • Does the respondent feel like a foreigner in Austria because of Muslim immigrants? (1=completely disagree, 5=completely agree)
  • How has the level of immigration to Austria changed in recent years? (1=decreased a lot, 3=same, 5=increased a lot)
  • Does the respondent agree that European and Muslim lifestyles are incompatible? (1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree)
  • Finally, 'authoritarianism' is a scale coded from six questions running from 1 (low) to 5 (high).

On each of the first three questions, FPÖ voters are more likely to give responses consistent with feelings of anxiety or exclusion. They worry more about immigration than supporters of other parties, they are more likely to agree that immigration makes them feel like a foreigner in their own country, and they are more likely to believe that immigration has increased a lot. On the fourth question, they are more likely to agree that Muslim lifestyles are incompatible with European lifestyles (which would presumably make Muslim immigration a source of anxiety). Finally, they are more likely to endorse authoritarian attitudes on political leadership, law and order, and traditional social values. (All of these differences are significant, t-tests p<.01).

So my expectation, based on these data from 2013, would be that Hofer voters are more anxious about immigration and the threat of Islamic terrorism than supporters of the other candidates.
This is not the first time that a radical right candidate has reached the run-off of a major election. In 2002, French National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen famously finished 2nd in the first round, before decisively losing in the 2nd round to incumbent Jacque Chirac of the center-right. Similarly, the National Front was unable to translate a strong showing in the 2015 regional elections into victory in any of France's 12 regions. This has been the typical pattern, as this tweet by political scientist Cas Mudde describes:

So why would it be different this time? There are three reasons. First is the aforementioned 'anxiety' effect. The run-off election will be on 22 May. In the time before that election, adverse events could trigger a new wave of voter anxiety--enough to push Hofer to a majority. 

 The second reason concerns the opposing candidate. In the past French elections, the opponent has always been a candidate of mainstream--usually, the center-right. That candidate collected the support of the center-right party's voters, plus most of those further to the left, leading to a comfortable victory. But, now, the 2nd place candidate is a member of the Austrian Green Party--Alexander Van Der Bellen. While it seems that he is a broadly respected political figure, which will surely help him, his political affiliation raises questions. Will supporters of the SPÖ, much less those of the ÖVP, actually rally to his support? Or will being affiliated with the Greens turn mainstream voters against him? Moreover, how will his being a Green (and, thus, potentially being seen as 'soft' on terrorism and immigration) interact with voters' anxiety on these issues?

Third, and finally, there is the electoral arithmetic. In 2002, Le Pen received less than 20% of the first-round vote and narrowly edged out Socialist Lionel Jospin for 2nd place. In this election, Hofer received about 37% of the vote while Van Der Bellen was just above 20%. Van Der Bellen will have to make up a substantial gap in order to win.

A lot can happen in four weeks, and it still remains unclear whether a radical right party candidate can truly gain votes beyond his/her core support. This election may well be a repeat of those prior French elections, where Hofer is unable to build on the 37% who voted for him in the first round. But the context and his opponent present him with a real opportunity, though this must all be tempered with a reminder that the presidency is largely ceremonial in Austrian politics. (However, Hofer could dissolve parliament and trigger early elections if he chose, while Van Der Bellen has promised that he will never appoint a ÖVP Chancellor). Either way, a run-off contest between a Green and a radical right candidate for the presidency of a West European state will be groundbreaking.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Boehmermann Saga, in Germany and Turkey

Here is my latest piece, originally published at Vocal Europe:

What Does the Böhmermann Saga Mean for Germany and for Turkey?

The decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to allow the prosecution of television satirist Jan Böhmermann to proceed for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has provoked surprise and outrage. As usual, much of the criticism is misdirected at the individuals in question—whether Böhmermann’s language is truly protected ‘free speech,’ whether Erdoğan is simply a humorless autocrat, and whether Merkel fecklessly capitulated to Erdoğan—while missing the bigger picture.

So let us start with two basic claims. First, it is absurd that an individual in a 21st century democracy can face potential imprisonment for insulting a public official—even as profanely as Böhmermann did. If anything comes out of this episode, it should be the repeal of the specific sections in Germany’s criminal code allowing prosecutions for insulting domestic or foreign officials or symbols. As Claire Sedar has observed, based on research conducted by the International Press Institute, these criminal laws are common throughout Europe. So this is not just a German problem, and lawmakers throughout Europe should push to repeal these codes in their countries as well. Criticism and satire of public officials, even when horribly offensive, are essential to a liberal society.

However, criticizing Merkel for ‘capitulating’ to Erdoğan is misguided. And this is the second fundamental claim: while free speech is essential in a liberal society, so is the rule of law. It is Merkel’s obligation as the head of government to enforce the law as it exists—and that means prosecuting Böhmermann in this instance. While understandable, the criticisms of Merkel coming from those concerned about Turkey are ironic, because selective enforcement of the law has been one of Erdoğan’s many strategies for centralizing his power. No advocate of liberal democracy should encourage state leaders to pick and choose when to enforce the law. Instead, the correct solution is to amend the law to fit with modern standards of liberal democracy.

With all of that said, defenders of Böhmermann might also engage in some critical reflection. There is a big gap between the conditions Böhmermann faces in Germany, and those that liberals (whom he presumably would like to support) face in Turkey. Residents of Germany are fortunate enough to live in a society where the right to free speech and satire is strongly guaranteed by law and respected in practice, with only limited exceptions (such as this case).

The situation is very different in Turkey, where liberals and other opposition groups are struggling for the right in practice to criticize Erdoğan and his government. When opposition newspapers are seized by the state in thinly veiled efforts to destroy them, and university faculty face prosecution for signing a petition condemning the government’s actions, free speech is truly under threat.

Böhmermann and his supporters may not realize how his poem is actually used to justify restrictions on free speech by government supporters. Pro-Erdoğan media claim that restrictions on free speech are needed to protect Turkish audiences from such vulgarity, which does not fit with Turkish values. In short, they claim that if Böhmermann’s poem is what government critics mean by ‘free speech,’ then Turkey does not need it. All of this takes places when Turkish liberals are trying to secure the right simply to criticize Erdoğan and his government. Of course, Böhmermann and other European satirists cannot be responsible for the (mis)conduct of Turkey’s government, but it is well worth remembering that actions such as these do not occur in a vacuum.

In the end, we should hope that the German judiciary sees reason and does not punish Böhmermann in any meaningful way, and that Merkel follows through on her promise to scrap these laws. Unfortunately, the struggle to secure liberal rights in Turkey will be more challenging, but European leaders can help by eliminating these archaic laws from their criminal codes.