VIENNA — When Arnold Schwarzenegger declared “I’ll be back” at the end of the first Terminator film, very few thought he was talking about returning to Austria. Yet here in Vienna, where Schwarzenegger made a surprise trip this week, there is speculation that his political career will be resurrected – Lazarus-like – in his abandoned homeland. And if he does take the leap, the Terminator could find himself playing a walk-on part in the most grandiose story of his career: the breakdown of the postwar European political order.
The talk is that Schwarzenegger could be one of the most visible faces supporting a putative new “Alliance for Austria” party that is being planned. The man behind it is the expatriate self-made billionaire Frank Stronach, who has pledged to launch a revolution in this placid corner of Central Europe. Last month he released a glossy eight-page personal manifesto that starts with the memorable phrase “unhappily, government is made up of politicians.” Pledging to rectify this anomaly, he talks about instituting lotteries that will allow ordinary people to suggest topics for parliament to debate, introducing a flat tax, and scrapping all corporate taxation for companies that invest in Austria.
According to the Austrian magazine News, Stronach has not yet decided whether to launch a brand-new party or effectively to buy the existing BZO party (a more moderate breakaway from the neo-fascist Freedom Party) by making a big enough donation. Apparently the former would cost 20 million euros, while the latter would be cheaper at 7 million. Stronach hopes to capture up to 20 percent of the vote, which would be the biggest political upset to hit this country since Jörg Haider’s party won a shock victory in the 1999 general election.
The entrepreneurial Stronach has spotted a potential niche in the political market, one that is being exploited across Europe. The mainstream parties that have driven European integration are struggling. Since the beginning of the crisis, there has been regime change in 11 European countries. With the exception of Fredrik Reinfeldt’s center-right government in Sweden, which has presided over an unlikely period of growth, every incumbent that has sought re-election has lost.
The Netherlands – another well-to-do northern European country that used to be a symbol of cozy elite consensus – is also a cauldron of discontent with its politics being remade. Since 2005, the traditional right-wing parties have been eclipsed by the maverick breakaway faction of Geert Wilders (the PVV), which has set the terms of the Dutch debate. Now the same dynamic is taking hold on the left, with Emile Roemer’s hard-left Socialist Party overtaking the traditional Dutch Labor Party (the PvDA) in the opinion polls. Marietje Schaake, a fiercely bright member of the European Parliament from the centrist D66 party, points to a dramatic shift in the concerns of Dutch populism. “The PVV’s support was shrinking because Wilders was not seen to be delivering and people were tiring of his rhetoric on Islam,” she told me in a telephone interview. “But the crisis was a blessing for him – he is moving from Muslim-bashing to attacking Europe.”