At just a little past 5 pm on Sunday, Austria’s election authorities announced that the former Green party leader and independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen would become Austria’s next president. This has been not only the most protracted election of the Second Republic but also by far the most acrimonious. The Austrian electorate thought they had already appointed their new president earlier this year when the run-off between the now twice successful candidate and his opponent, the far-right Freedom Party-sponsored Norbert Hofer produced the tiniest of majorities (0.6 per cent) in Van der Bellen’s favour.
However, that election was disputed by a Freedom Party sponsored challenge, and Austria’s constitutional court ruled in July that because of irregularities in the counting process, the vote would have to be repeated. Initially scheduled for 2 October, a further frustration came in the form of the inferior glue (rumoured to be a German product) on postal vote envelopes. Pre-election commentators wondered whether voter fatigue would produce a markedly reduced participation. In fact, there was a 1.4 per cent higher turnout. Despite the near year-long process, the annoyance of repeated attempts at running the election, and the inauspicious timing for the second Sunday of advent, Austria’s voters decided to get out into the chill air and vote.
The demographics will be picked over in the next hours and days. Early information suggests that the Freedom Party polled very positively in the expected segments –men, those without higher education qualifications and rural voters. However, large numbers of political and celebrity endorsements as well as an impressive grass roots swell of campaign support added momentum to Van der Bellen’s popularity. His electoral share will settle out at around 53.3 per cent once the postal votes have been counted. The tenfold increase in the margin between the candidates’ results – 6 per cent compared to 0.6 per cent in May – raises questions about what else could have happened in the intervening months to boost Van der Bellen’s popularity.
It could be that Austria’s voters have heeded Van der Bellen’s campaign appeal to defend Austria’s reputation abroad with international concern mounting over the possibility of Austria electing “Europe’s first far-right leader since Hitler”. Election results from abroad have also undoubtedly played a part in Austria, and observers have been pondering the possible effect of both Brexit and the ‘Trump effect’ on the final outcome. Van der Bellen is resolutely pro-EU and takes every opportunity to stress the Union’s necessity for economic wellbeing, for the peace project, and for tolerance and solidarity. Despite smiling assurances to the contrary, Hofer’s anti-EU credentials and anti-immigration stance are, on the other hand, beyond dispute. The Freedom Party has already submitted a formal request to the Austrian parliament to hold an EU referendum, and the party repeatedly insists on the need to let the people speak. Little wonder that EU-Presidents Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker are on record as warning the Austrians against voting for the Freedom Party candidate.
Austria has now made up its own mind and has staved off the Freedom Party’s attempts on the country’s highest office. But as journalist and writer Robert Misik points out in his video blog for the left-leaning newspaper Der Standard, at 47 or so per cent of the electorate, there are still quite enough people who have voted for the far right.
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