The Alpine Tremors

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The president of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen, recently suffered a concussion after falling while hiking in the Alps. As the Daily Beast reported, the 78-year-old Van der Bellen was briefly out of commission, a situation that likely made some Austrians nervous given how unstable the Austrian government has been recently.

Sixty percent of Austrians think their democracy is malfunctioning. Ninety percent believe the political system is corrupt, Politico reported at the beginning of the year. Their cynicism reflects how former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, 35, recently retired from politics under a cloud of corruption scandals, German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle added.

Van der Bellen, meanwhile, the former leader of the Green Party, remains relatively popular. He might even win reelection in the first round of voting when Austria holds its presidential election on Oct. 9, the Local wrote, noting a recent poll that gave him 59 percent support among voters. He first won office in 2016, defeating far-right candidate Norbert Hofer after Austria’s Constitutional Court ordered a rerun of the second round of voting when Hofer claimed the vote was rigged.

The president’s standing is not random. As the Independent explained, the Austrian presidency is largely a ceremonial office but it becomes more important during domestic crises like pandemics, chancellors’ resignations, and nearby wars like the one between Russia and Ukraine. Van der Bellen, a former economics professor, has been a figure of calm amid these storms.

Meanwhile, the far-right is still extremely popular in Austria, especially outside of Vienna. Kurz’ first of two conservative governments included Hofer’s far-right Freedom Party, for example, until Freedom Party members were caught in a scandal involving recorded conversations in Ibiza, Spain concerning an alleged deal to give public contracts to the supposed wealthy niece of a Russian oligarch in return for political donations.

As the Guardian noted in an editorial, many Austrians, like many other Europeans today, are suspicious of European Union elites, unrestricted mass migration, and discussions about gender and identity.

Economic instability often inflames the passions that make political ideologies more noxious. That’s one reason Van der Bellen and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer appear to be working in parallel to tackle the energy crisis now striking the country. Nehammer is proposing to spend billions of dollars to subsidize Austria’s energy costs, which have risen exponentially as Europe has reduced gas supplies from its biggest supplier, Russia, in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine. Van der Bellen is seeking to begin a broader transition to other energy sources.

Austrians will soon tell us whether they think Van der Bellen’s moves are enough.

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