Austria and EU on tenterhooks, as right-wing extremist has slight lead

Presidential candidate Norbert Hofer (R) and head of the Austrian Freedom party Heinz-Christian Strache (L) . Vienna, April. [Reuters]

Austria and the European Union were on tenterhooks today (23 May) as they waited to see whether Norbert Hofer had won an election runoff to become the bloc’s first president from the anti-immigrant extreme right.

Projected results late on Sunday put both Hofer, presented as the friendly and moderate face of the populist Freedom Party (FPOe), and Alexander van der Bellen, former head of the Greens, neck-and-neck.

According to the interior ministry’s final count of votes cast at polling stations, Hofer took 51.9% to 48.1% for Mr Van der Bellen.

The final result will hinge on the large number of postal votes – almost 900,000, a record 14% of Austria’s 6.4 million eligible voters – which will be added to the totals later today.

Mirroring similar trends right across Europe and beyond – as seen with the popularity of Donald Trump across the Atlantic – voters in Austria are becoming increasingly disillusioned with mainstream parties.

The presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, have both expressed concern over a Hofer victory.

In the first round on 24 April, the candidates of the Social Democrats (SPOe) and their centre-right coalition partners People’s Party (OeVP), came a disastrous fourth and fifth places, respectively, with just 11% of the vote.

Far-right triumphs in first round of Austrian presidential election

Austria’s government was licking its wounds after a historic debacle that saw the opposition anti-immigrant far-right triumph yesterday (24 April) in a presidential ballot two years before the next scheduled general election.

That meant that for the first time since 1945, these parties, which have long dominated politics in one of the EU’s most stable democracies, had to watch the second round from the sidelines.

This was also the final straw for Werner Faymann of the SPOe, who quit as chancellor on 9 May.

Austrian PM Faymann steps down

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann today (9 May) stepped down as leader of the centrist coalition government and as head of his Social Democratic Party (SPO), two weeks after the SPO suffered a disastrous result in presidential elections.

His successor, railways boss Christian Kern, was appointed last week, with two years to win voters back from the arms of the extreme right before the next scheduled general election.

New Austrian centre-left chancellor will not rule out ties to far-right

Austria’s new Chancellor Christian Kern said yesterday (17 May) his Social Democrats (SPO) would prefer to keep governing with conservatives and will not sell their souls just to remain in power, but he did not rule out joining forces one day with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

Hofer, 45, boosted by growing unease about the record number of people claiming asylum last year at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, came first, with 35% of the vote in the first round.

‘Election thriller’

Following this triumph, observers thought that the professorial and unkempt Van der Bellen, 72, would have little chance of beating his polished younger rival in the runoff.

“Very few people thought I could catch up,” Van der Bellen said late Sunday.

“But in the last 14 days there has been such a momentum among voters – musicians, actors, workers, totally different people across all generations, professions and all sections of society.”

Karin Cvrtila from polling institute OGM, called his surprise success an “election thriller”.

“He has really recovered in the past couple of weeks, partly because of a good campaign,” she told AFP.

The FPOe has shaken up Austrian politics and sent shock waves through Europe before.

In 2000, under then-leader Joerg Haider – who memorably praised the employment policies of the SS, Nazi Germany’s elite security and military unit – it entered a coalition with the OeVP.

The result was international isolation, and Austria temporarily becoming a pariah in Europe.

This time, however, observers note there could be less of a backlash in light of surging support for populist parties elsewhere in Europe.

Since the end of World War II, the Austrian head of state has performed a largely ceremonial role in the gilded halls of the Hofburg, the former Habsburg palace in Vienna.

But having either Hofer or Van der Bellen as president could shake things up, potentially using hitherto untapped powers to dissolve parliament or fire the government.

“You’ll be amazed what a president is capable of,” Hofer said during the campaign.

Subscribe to our newsletters