Austria’s close shave with the extreme right

voting_slip_austria_CREDIT[Muellek Josef_Shutterstock] [Muellek Josef/Shutterstock]

Austria’s next President, the Green-backed independent Alexander Van de Bellen, edged out FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer in a tight second round vote, which saw one of Europe’s strongest nationalist parties triumph in rural areas and among male voters. EURACTIV France reports.

Once the all-important postal votes were totaled up, it emerged that the 72 year-old retired economics professor had taken 50.3% of the vote, just 31,026 votes ahead of his rival Hofer. The FPÖ (Austrian Freedom Party) candidate took 49.7% and conceded defeat just before the result was officially announced.

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“I would like to thank you for your great support.  Of course I’m sad today,” Hofer wrote on his Facebook page.  “The effort that went into this campaign isn’t lost but is an investment in the future,” he added.

After winning the first round of the election with 35%, Hofer had a lead of 144,006 votes after the ballot boxes were emptied in the second round.

Electoral “thriller”

But the postal votes opened on Monday (23 May), which historically have not favoured the extreme right, leading to a real electoral thriller, and finally swung the balance in favour of the Green candidate.

Close to 900,000 people, or 14% of the Austrian electorate, had requested a postal vote in this election, which attracted close attention right across Europe, particularly from those concerned about the rise of populist politics in their own countries.

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Already, the outgoing president, the centre-left Social-Democrat Heinz Fischer, has delivered his congratulations to the victor. He announced that he has “invited” Van der Bellen to visit him at the Hofburg presidential palace to “prepare the handover of power” on 8 July.

Van der Bellen is not only the first candidate of a Green background to be elected as the head of state of Austria, but he is also the first ideologically Green president in Europe.

Historic defeat

Credited with just 21.3% of the vote in the first round of the election, far behind Hofer on 35%, Van der Bellen benefited from an increased turnout in the second round and managed to garner the support of a large proportion of voters from the traditional parties, which suffered historic defeats.  “It is worth not giving up,” he said on Sunday (22 May).

A victory for Hofer, the 45 year-old vice-president of the Austrian parliament, would have made him the first extreme right head of state in the European Union.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker expressed his fear of seeing “the hard right and the extreme right” win in Austria. The prospect was welcomed by the French National Front.

One in two voters

True to Austrian tradition, none of the third party candidates excluded from the second round instructed their supporters on how to vote in the second round. But a number of personalities, including the leading voices in the governing social-democratic and conservative parties, publically came out in support of Van der Bellen.

The narrow defeat was the FPÖ’s best ever performance in a national election. The extreme right party rose on a wave of concern generated by the migration crisis, which saw 90,000 people apply for asylum in Austria in 2015, or more than 1% of the country’s population.

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Hofer, an affable member of parliament who has kept his distance from the openly xenophobic comments that have characterised his party in the past, focussed his campaign on purchasing power, winning over almost one in two voters and clearly dominating in the rural areas.

He seduced the majority of male voters (54%) and voters without high-school qualifications (58%).  Hofer also convinced the large majority of working class voters (71%).

Van der Bellen was more attractive to young voters (56%) and the over 50s (51%).

But for the other categories “there is no clear sociological divide, the votes are nuanced”, Florian Oberhuber from the SORA Institute told AFP.

According to the political scientist Thomas Hofer, “The main divide is political, over questions like the European Union, refugees, trust in the system.”

On Sunday (22 May) Norbert Hofer, an aeronautical engineer by training and an FPÖ activist since his youth, promised to “stand again in six years’ time” if he was not elected.

For the social democratic (SPÖ) and conservative (ÖVP) parties, which have been in power in Austria since the Second World War, the first round of this election was a historic defeat.  Chancellor Werner Faymann (SPÖ) stood down after between the two rounds of voting and was replaced by Christian Kern, the head of the Austrian national rail company.

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