If life were a football game, I’d be receiving a penalty for excessive celebration tonight.
At a time when populist demagogues seem to be ruling the roost, Austria just elected its first Green president. Although the Austrian presidency is in practice largely ceremonial and the successful candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, ran as an independent and already won the election once, today’s win against a candidate from the far right was anything but certain.
You see, back in May, Van der Bellen beat his far-right opponent by a narrow margin, but the losing party successfully challenged the results in several districts. Although there was no evidence of fraud, administrative irregularities–such as beginning to count absentee ballots a few hours too early–affecting enough votes in theory to sway the outcome prompted the Constitutional Court to annul the election in the interest of preserving public confidence in the electoral process.
This decision, however, was seen by many as a blow to democracy–it appeared that the far-right party had counted on these administrative irregularities and had prepared their challenge in advance, effectively exploiting the rule of law to invalidate millions of perfectly valid votes with the stroke of a pen.
In the meantime, Brexit supporters wrested the future of their country away from its moorings and the United States elected a blustering casino magnate as its president. It seemed inevitable that Austria would follow suit.
After all, Austria is not immune to the problems fueling complaints expressed by the disaffected in the UK and US. In fact, Austrians have far more reason to complain in some cases. For example, the country has been inundated with wholly unvetted asylum-seekers following Merkel’s announcement of an open-door policy in late 2015 for Syrian refugees. Drawn by this invitation and aided by the collapse of state structures along the Balkans, nearly 100,000 hopefuls from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere applied for asylum in Austria in 2015 followed by nearly another 40,000 in 2016. This may not sound like much, but for a country with 1/38th of the population of the United States, and a much more robust and expensive social welfare state, it is. If anyone could be justified in picking up the pablum the populists were putting down, it would be Austrians.
But they didn’t.
Instead, they elected a pro-European who can be counted on not to retreat from the country’s humanitarian commitments. Although Van der Bellen is not a member of any church and doesn’t consider himself a believer in a narrow sense, he feels committed to the message of the New Testament and believes that the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the moral obligation to help those in need. And so on this second Advent I am celebrating a glimmer of light in the darkness. At least for one day, reason and compassion trumped fear and xenophobia.