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Austrian center wins a hollow presidential victory

Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly defeated the far right in Austria's presidential election, but it might ultimately be a Phyrric victory. (Amélie Chapalain / Facebook)
Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly defeated the far right in Austria’s presidential election, but it might ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory. (Amélie Chapalain / Facebook)

It took the counting of around 750,000 postal votes on Monday to settle what had been a too-close-to-call runoff to determine who would win Austria’s (mostly ceremonial) presidency.austria flag

The winner, by a very narrow margin, is Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old professor and, nominally an independent, though formerly a parliamentary leader of the Die Grünen (Austrian Green Party), and you could almost hear the palpable sigh of relief from across the European Union as far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer conceded defeat.

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But it’s a hollow relief.

The result means that Austria’s hard right will not occupy the presidency and, therefore, will not be able to attempt to terminate the current government or try to wrest greater powers from Austria’s parliament. But given the tumult of the past month in Austrian politics, the hard right has clearly been emboldened by the presidential race, and it will now look to the next parliamentary elections to take real power.

The first-round, double-digit victory of Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old candidate of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), stunned not only Austria, but all of Europe. It represents the closest than any far-right party has come to winning power at the national level in the European Union since the 1930s.

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RELATED: Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

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Its success shouldn’t have been surprising. The Freedom Party has increasingly gained on the country’s mainstream parties, and it nearly toppled state governments in regional elections last autumn.

Despite its defeat, the FPÖ has been able not only to undermine a sitting chancellor, but to force his resignation. After social democratic chancellor Werner Faymann initially welcomed refugees to Austria last summer, he abruptly reversed course under pressure from the Freedom Party and angry voters, instead co-opting the rhetoric and the policies of the far right, complete with border fences and anti-immigration crackdowns.

But the candidate of Faymann’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) finished in fourth place, and shortly after the first-round vote, the Social Democrats essentially forced Faymann to resign, bringing to an end an eight-year tenure leading a grand coalition government with the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party). For its part, the ÖVP presidential candidate placed an even more disappointing fifth.

Faymann, to his credit, ably led Austria through the 2008-09 global financial panic and the 2010 eurozone crisis, and Austria and its banking system, moreover, helped stave off a broader crisis in central Europe and the Balkans. Instead of leaving office, having made the noble case for welcoming refugees, he left power earlier this month after capitulating to the hard right. Continue reading Austrian center wins a hollow presidential victory

Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria's presidential election. (Facebook)
Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election. (Facebook)

On a day when Serbians reelected their pro-European government in landslide, the spotlight suddenly fell on Austria instead.austria flag

Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the anti-immigrant, far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election, while the candidates of the two governing parties fell to fourth and fifth place.

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Hofer’s first-round lead of more than 10% shocked not only Vienna, but the entire European Union.

At age 45, Hofer is not nearly as well known as some of the Freedom Party’s top officials, including its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. But his fresh-faced appeal might have improved the party’s chances, in contrast to one of the FPÖ’s more established figures. Austria has admitted more refugees, on a per-capita basis, than even Germany, and Hofer spent much of his campaign trashing Austria’s willingness to pay more into the European Union than it receives in return, stoking anger over bailouts to Greece and other member-state with crippling debt. Continue reading Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

Vienna's Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)
Vienna’s Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)

Sometimes, what doesn’t happen in an election matters more than what does happen.austria flag

So it was in Vienna on Sunday, when Michael Häupl, the longtime center-left mayor held onto power. That’s not so surprising, because his Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) has controlled Vienna’s state government in every election in the postwar era.

What’s more, though polls showed that the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) was trailing the Social Democrats by just 1% in the week before Vienna’s elections, the Freedom Party actually lost by nearly 10%. Though the Freedom Party’s result marks a gain against its prior result in 2010, and its strength is growing amid the backdrop of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis, its failure in Vienna is notable.

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After an election campaign that pitted Häupl in competition directly with the Freedom Party’s leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the far right’s failure to break through should come as a relief to Austria’s entire political mainstream, of both right and left. Had Strache won the election, it would have shaken the foundations of the grand coalition that governs Austria under Social Democratic chancellor Werner Faymann.

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Vienna, aside from being Austria’s capital, is also the country’s largest state, with 1.8 million of Austria’s 8.6 million people, so elections for the Landtag invariably influence the national political climate. Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative), the third-placed party, won enough seats to give the SPÖ-led coalition a majority in the state assembly. Continue reading Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.
Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.

Amid the refugee crisis that has strained European borders, internal and external, since late summer, there’s increasing discussion of using formal diplomatic sanctions against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán for his intransigence in dealing with migrants, many of whom are Syrians fleeing years of civil war or otherwise miserable refugee camps in an overburdened Lebanon.austria flag

The last time that the European Union assessed diplomatic sanctions, however, was in 2000, when it chided Austria for letting the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) into government.

But in the first electoral test for the eastern European countries at the heart of the migrant crisis, it was the FPÖ that emerged as the clear winner, surging 9% to second place in Oberösterreich (Upper Austria)’s regional elections and winning 18 of the regional parliament’s 56 seats.

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Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, already had reason to be pleased with himself after taking the party to third-place status in Austria’s national parliamentary elections in September 2013.

His party only narrowly lost to the long-dominant center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), which has controlled the state government since 1945, and whose leader, Josef Pühringer, has served as the state’s governor since 1995. Though its population is just 1.44 million, the state is Austria’s industrial heartland and the country’s third-most populous state, and it borders Germany’s Bavaria and the Czech Republic. The  center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) of Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann fell to third place.

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Since 2003, the Austrian People’s Party has governed Upper Austria in a so-called ‘black-green’ coalition with Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative). Though the Greens actually improved on their support from the most recent election in 2009, the ÖVP’s loss of seven seats means that their partnership is two seats short of a majority in the unicameral Landtag. Pühringer will have to form a minority government, looking to the Social Democrats or the Freedom Party for support on a case-by-case basis or otherwise enter into negotiations for a ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats. Continue reading Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

skepticismAs voters in 28 European countries prepare to head to the polls, beginning on May 22 and running through May 25, no one knows whether Europe’s center-left or center-right will win more seats, and no one knows who will ultimately become the next president of the European Commission.European_Union

But the one thing upon which almost everyone agrees is that Europe’s various eurosceptic parties are set for a huge victory — not enough seats to determine the outcomes of EU legislation and policymaker, perhaps, but enough to form a strong, if disunited, bloc of relatively anti-federalist voices. Voters, chiefly in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, are set to cast strong protest votes that could elect more than 100 eurosceptic MEPs.

In some countries, such as Spain, euroscepticism is still a limited force the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) is tied for the lead with the governing center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. But Spain is quickly becoming an outlier as eurosceptic parties are springing up in places where unionist sentiment once ran strong.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections
RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

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Of course, not all eurosceptics are created equally. Some anti-Europe parties have been around for decades, while others weren’t even in existence at the time of the last elections in 2009. Some are virulently xenophobic, far-right or even neo-Nazi in their outlooks, while others are cognizably on the more mainstream conservative / leftist ideological spectrum. Some seek nothing short of their country’s withdrawal from the European Union altogether, while others seek greater controls on immigration. Some are even pro-Europe in the abstract, but oppose eurozone membership. That’s one of the reasons why eurosceptics have had so much trouble uniting across national lines — the mildest eurosceptic parties abhor the xenophobes, for example.

If everyone acknowledges that eurosceptic parties will do well when the votes are all counted on Sunday, no one knows whether that represents a peak of anti-Europe support, given the still tepid economy and high unemployment across the eurozone, or whether it’s part of a trend that will continue to grow in 2019 and 2024.

With 100 seats or so in the European Parliament, eurosceptics can’t cause very many problems. They can make noise, and they stage protests, but they won’t hold up the EU parliamentary agenda. With 200 or even 250 seats, though, they could cause real damage. There’s no rule that says that eurosceptics can’t one day win the largest block of EP seats, especially so long as most European voters ignore Europe-wide elections or treat them as an opportunity to protest unpopular national government.

For now, though, they’re all bound to cause plenty of trouble for their more mainstream rivals at the national level, and in at least five countries, they could wind up with the largest share of the vote. So it’s still worth paying attention to them.

Without further ado, here are the top 13 eurosceptic parties to keep an eye on as the results are announced on Sunday:

Continue reading A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

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While most of Europe was watching the birth of Germany’s latest grand coalition government last week, Austria’s grand coalition also finalized its government platform.austria flag

Austria, which has an even stronger tradition of cozy coalition politics between the center-left and the center right, will continue to a coalition that’s comprised of its main center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and its main center-right party, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

There was very little unexpected news about the coalition deal, which will continue the broadly centrist course of center-left chancellor Werner Faymann’s government.

But the decision to elevate the hunky 27-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s new foreign minister was something of a shock.  Michael Spindelegger, the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor, who previously served as foreign minister between 2008 and 2013, will become the government’s new finance minister.

The decision leaves Kurz (pictured above) as one of the world’s youngest political leaders in such a high policymaking role.

So who is this whiz kid?  Kurz became involved in politics at age 10, and by 2009, he was the leader of the youth wing of the Austrian People’s Party.  In 2010, he was elected to the city council of his native Vienna, running under the slogan, ‘Schwarz macht neil‘ (‘Black is cool,’ referring to the color most associated with the People’s Party) in a campaign Hummer that quickly gained the nickname as the ‘Geilomobil‘ (which translates roughly to ‘Horny-mobile’), befitting Kurz’s growing reputation as somewhat of a party animal.  Before you judge him too harshly, however, remember that it was part of a wider push to make the ÖVP more attractive to young voters. And just four months ago, two competing leaders of the Austrian far right both posed shirtless in public.

But by 2011 he was already serving as state secretary for integration, where he impressed skeptics by working to ease the path for the growing number of immigrants to Austria, including through the institution of an extra year of pre-school for immigrant children to learn German.  He helped spearhead a new immigration law in May of this year that clears a path to citizenship for some immigrants within six years.

It was a controversial move on Spindelegger’s part, but it paid off, and Kurz was elected to the Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament, in the September 29 parliamentary elections with a higher number of votes than any other candidate. 

His approach contrasts with that of the more xenophobic approach to immigration of Austria’s far right.  In  September, the Social Democrats won 27.1% and the Austrian People’s Party won 23.8%, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won 21.4%, a strong third-place finish.  But a Dec. 12 Hajek poll showed that if the elections were held over today, the Freedom Party would emerge as the leading party with 26%, followed by the Social Democrats with 23% and the Austrian People’s Party at 20%.  A new free-market libertarian partyDas Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), which entered the National Council for the first time in September’s elections, would win 11%.

The Freedom Party’s relatively young and charismatic leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, wasted no time in criticizing Kurz for his inexperience:

“When Mr Kurz becomes foreign minister without any diplomatic experience, you have to be amazed. This is the continuation of Austria’s farewell to foreign policy,” right-wing leader Heinz Christian Strache told parliament on Tuesday.

Kurz… took the blows.  “It’s true, of course. Due to my age I have limited experience and of course hardly any diplomatic experience. But what I bring is lots of diligence, energy and the desire to contribute something,” he told Reuters.

But Kurz emphasized the international nature of his previous role with respect to integration, and he argued that his relative youth and high media profile would allow him to make an immediate impact.  Though Austria, with just 8.5 million people, has a less dominant voice on European matters than Germany, it plays a key role in the Balkans, where Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries are hoping to begin accession talks to the European Union early next year. (If your German skills are up for it, here’s an interview with Kurz in Der Standard earlier this week).

Kurz’s appointment also means that he will likely take a key role in the upcoming European Parliament elections by convincing Austrian voters not to turn to euroskeptic parties like the Freedom Party or Team Stronach, the conservative movement of Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach.  Spindelegger was criticized during his tenure at the ministry for being a ‘half-time foreign minister’ in light of his duties as the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor. Continue reading Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

Austrian election results: grand coalition reelected, Freedom Party solidifies gains on far right

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With nearly all of the votes counted in Austria’s election today, it appears that the current grand coalition led by center-left chancellor Werner Faymann will continue — for up to another five years.austria flag

Just one week after Germans massively supported chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats for steering Germany largely unscathed through the worst of the economic crisis, Austrians appeared ready to do the same for Faymann, though his Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) did not score the kind of overwhelming victory that Merkel’s Christian Democrats won last week — the SPÖ lost over 2% of the vote since the September 2008 election.

But their coalition partners, the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), also lost 2.2% of the vote from 2008.  Together, however, the two parties won enough seats (99) to continue to hold an absolute majority in Austria’s 183-member Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament.

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But the far-right, anti-EU, anti-immigrant Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won just four seats less than the People’s Party and it won over 21% of the vote.  That’s largely because voters on the far right abandoned the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ, Alliance for the Future of Austria), the splinter group that former Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider founded in 2005.

Believe it or not, today’s election was the first one without Haider in nearly two decades following his sensational death in October 2008, and the BZÖ lost over 7% from the 2008 election — and missed the 4% electoral hurdle required to hold seats in Austria’s National Council.  Given Haider’s absence from the political scene, many BZÖ supporters turned back to the Freedom Party.  In any event, it’s certainly a huge victory for FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache (pictured above), whose party gained more support than any of the parties that contested the 2008 election.  Strache is one of the big winners in today’s election, and that will amplify his voice as the chief opposition leader in Austria.

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Continue reading Austrian election results: grand coalition reelected, Freedom Party solidifies gains on far right

In Germany’s shadow, Austria also prepares for late September election

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In central Europe, another German-speaking nation is heading to the polls next month in a race that will likely also result in a broad left/right ‘grand coalition.’austria flag

Austria’s parliamentary elections on September 29 will affect a population that’s just two-thirds that of the German state of Bavaria, but the campaign features many of the same dynamics as Germany’s federal elections that will be held exactly one week prior — a broad centrist consensus on economic policy, the likelihood of yet another ‘grand coalition,’ flush economic conditions relative to the rest of Europe and static polls all year long indicating a narrow center-left win.

But there are key differences as well — unlike in Germany, where Christian democratic chancellor Angela Merkel is favored for reelection, it’s Austria’s social democratic chancellor Werner Faymann who will likely return as chancellor.  Moreover, there’s a far-right component to Austrian politics that simply doesn’t exist in Germany.  While the far-right remains divided among three competing parties (and that makes it unlikely that they will form a government), the far-right parties could cumulative outpoll the center-left and the center-right.

Let’s start with the fundamentals — Austria’s economy grew by an estimated 0.6% last year and 2.7% in 2011, and though its growth this year has been virtually negligible, it dipped into negative growth (-0.1%) for just one quarter (Q4 2012), so it’s difficult to say that Austria has even suffered a recession, at least in technical terms.  Although the European Union’s unemployment rate, as of June 2013, remains 10.9% and the eurozone’s unemployment rate an even higher 12.3%, Austria has the absolute lowest unemployment of all 27 EU nations: at 4.6%, Austria’s unemployment is nearly a percentage point lower than the second-lowest, Germany, which has a 5.4% unemployment rate.

That means that the anti-incumbent moods that pushed out French president Nicolas Sarkozy last year and has already weakened his leftist successor, François Hollande, and that upended governments in Greece, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere over the past year, doesn’t have the same punch in Austria.

The latest Gallup poll from Austria dated August 22, is representative — it shows that Faymann’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) holds a narrow lead over its current coalition partner, the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party):

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The three far-right parties, taken together, however, attract the support of 29% of all Austrian voters — the largest, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria), is the longstanding anti-immigrant, anti-EU, extreme-right conservative party in Austria, and it was the party that the late Jörg Haider led controversially into a government coalition in 2000 with the ÖVP.

But Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach, who returned to his homeland last year after decades as chief executive officer of his Ontario-based auto parts company, is leading an alternative populist, eurosceptic right-wing party — Team Stronach — that’s attracting between 8% and 10% of the vote.

Finally, the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ, Alliance for the Future of Austria), which Haider founded in 2005 when he left the FPÖ, is in danger of losing all of its seats in Austria’s parliament following Haider’s sensational November 2008 death and Stronach’s recent rise.

But most recently, Stronach and the FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache have made more headlines over shirtless photos than policy matters.   Furthermore, in March’s local elections in the southernmost state of Carinthia, where Haider had served as governor for nearly a decade, the Freedom Party’s share of the vote dropped from about 45% to just 17%, and the Social Democrats swept to power under its leader Peter Kaiser in alliance with the Die Grünen – Die Grüne Alternative (Green Party).  Nationally, the Greens are polling at around 15%, which would mark a 40% increase from their 2008 result.

Austrian voters also widely prefer Faymann to continue as chancellor over ÖVP leader and foreign minister Michael Spindelegger — Faymann took over just weeks after the global financial crisis in 2008, and he has pursued one of the most successful center-left policy agendas in Europe.  Like in Germany, Austria pursued work-sharing policies (e.g., shorter working hours for everyone) in the immediate aftermath of the crisis to avoid massive layoffs.  Faymann’s government has also enacted some of the world’s most successful job training legislation and other forward measures to assist workers remain competitive through Austria’s Arbeitsmarktservice (AMS, Austrian Employment Service): Continue reading In Germany’s shadow, Austria also prepares for late September election

Is Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder really the most dangerous politician in Europe?

Der Spiegel ranks the top 10 most dangerous politicians in Europe, and you might be surprised at who comes out on top.

The piece targets Markus Söder, the finance minister of Bavaria since November 2011:

The politician from the [Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union)], the conservative sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is known for his tub-thumping rhetoric and has stepped up a gear in the euro crisis with vitriolic comments about Greece. “An example must be made of Athens, that this euro zone can show teeth,” he told the Bild am Sonntag tabloid newspaper this week. “Everyone has to leave Mom at some point and that time has come for the Greeks.”

It also points the finger at Alexander Dobrindt, general secretary of the CSU to which Söder also belongs — Dobrindt has also called on Greece to exit the eurozone by paying its debts in drachmas instead of euros.

Söder, an up-and-coming politician in the CSU, has previously served as minister for environment and health from 2008 to 2011 and from 2007 to 2008, as minister for federal and European affairs.  He’s a solid populist, to be sure — for example, he’s in favor of Bavaria’s ban on the wearing of Muslim head scarves (but not nun’s habits).

But it’s easy enough to explain away the relatively strident tone from Söder and the CSU as political posturing in advance of Bavarian state elections that must take place sometime in 2013.  The CSU will be struggling to maintain the grip that its held on Bavarian state politics since the 1950s.  At the federal level, although the CSU-backed Angel Merkel has walked a tight line when it comes to balancing national and federalist European interests, but her leftist opponents are even more federalist when it comes to Europe and the eurozone.

The Spiegel list is dominated by some of the nationalist right’s usual suspects: Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and a member of the European Parliament; Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front national in France; Timo Soini, leader of the Perussuomalaiset (PS, True Finns) party, also a member of the European Parliament; Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom); and Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Austrian Freedom Party).

They seem like odd choices, though, because none of them (except perhaps Strache) seem to be on the upswing.  Wilders is polling quite dreadfully in advance of the Dutch elections on Sept. 4.  Farage and Soini are sideshows at best.  Despite her strong showing in the French presidential election in April and the shadow she casts over the French center-right, Le Pen failed to win a seat in France’s national assembly in the June elections — and her party won just two seats in total.

To me, the following politicians are far more “dangerous” — by “dangerous,” I mean the ability to win real power or to be more effective in making mischief: Continue reading Is Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder really the most dangerous politician in Europe?