The two candidates in Austria’s closely watched presidential race met yesterday (19 May) for a final TV duel ahead of a runoff vote this weekend, which could see the arrival of the European Union’s first far-right president.
Sunday’s showdown (22 May) pits 45-year-old Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPOe) against the Green-backed economics professor Alexander van der Bellen, 72.
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.
In previous encounters, the pair had traded increasingly aggressive barbs, exposing their glaring differences over the migrant crisis and the European Union.
The mudslinging reached a crescendo last weekend when they tore each other down for 45 minutes on private Austrian channel ATV, without a presenter to moderate the debate.
“I’m talking about Europe: E-U-R-O-P-E. Never heard of it?” taunted van der Bellen his opponent at one stage.
“My God, the schoolmasterliness, Herr Doctor Van der Bellen,” his agitated rival shot back.
Commentators afterwards “described the show as an “embarrassing” fiasco.
‘No Nazi in the Hofburg’
In contrast, Thursday’s 100-minute-long debate on the public broadcaster ORF was a mostly subdued affair, primarily summarising the candidates’ main campaign points.
“If you put two gladiators in an arena, it can happen that the two argue in a heated manner,” said Hofer as he tried to downplay last Sunday’s fiasco.
The far-right candidate went on to reiterate his intention to be “a much more active” president.
“The position has a lot of authority and weight in Austria and abroad, and you can achieve a lot,” he said.
Hofer has previously threatened to seize upon never-before-used presidential powers to fire the government if it failed to get tougher on migrants or boost the faltering economy.
Traditionally, the role has been held by a candidate from one of Austria’s two main centrist parties since 1945.
But their crushing first-round defeat has now pushed Austria into unfamiliar territory.
However, Hofer – who is also a lower house leader in the Austrian parliament – stressed that his “personal views and values” would not prevent him from being a “non-partisan president”.
For his part, van der Bellen repeated that he would not swear in FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache as chancellor if the far-right won the next general election scheduled in 2018.
Pressed whether he would appoint him vice-chancellor, van der Bellen said he “could not rule that out”.
Tapping into public anger about immigration and rising unemployment, the FPOe consistently scores more than 30% in opinion polls.
Observers expect the runoff to be a tight race.
In last month’s first round, Hofer beat van der Bellen comfortably by 35% to 21%.
On Thursday evening, around 400 people held a peaceful rally outside Vienna’s Hofburg palace, which houses the presidential office and residence, to protest against Hofer.
Some of the demonstrators held signs reading “No Nazi will enter the Hofburg” and “Never again”, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
The EU has imposed sanctions only once against a member state. In 2000, 14 countries of the then 15-member EU reacted to the entrance of Jörg Haider's far-right Austrian Freedom Party into the Austrian government by freezing bilateral relations with the country.
No contacts or ambassadorial meetings at an intergovernmental level were held and Austrian candidates were not supported when EU international offices were assigned.
The sanctions were imposed in February 2000 and lifted seven months later when Haider stepped aside as party leader. He died in a car accident in 2008.
France, Belgium and Germany led the campaign to ostracise Vienna. This was seen largely to result from domestic political sensitivities to the far right. Then-President Jacques Chirac of France sought to oppose the country's Front National and Belgium faced pressure from the separatist Vlaams Blok.
By contrast, Italy and Denmark urged for the lifting of sanctions.