We shouldn't be so hard on Nigel Farage – he has saved Austria from the grips of the far right

Arron Banks, the Ukip funder, blamed the Austrian people for making the wrong choice in their election, rejecting Hofer. This was, he held, because they 'haven’t suffered enough rape and murder yet' in the hands of refugees

Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 07 December 2016 17:38
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Nigel Farage has been criticised by Norbert Hofer for his interference in the Austrian election
Nigel Farage has been criticised by Norbert Hofer for his interference in the Austrian election

There is a surprising new asset in the struggle against the far right in Europe – Nigel Farage. The inability of the garrulous pub landlord of British politics to keep quiet cost the Freedom Party victory in the Austrian election on Sunday.

That is certainly the view of the Austrian right wingers. Farage had taken it upon himself to declare that Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party leader, would hold a referendum on leaving the European Union after he had won. “That did not help us, it hindered us,” was the angry complaint by Anton Mahdalik, a senior party member. “We were very aware that a majority of Austrians support EU membership.”

Hofer had described Farage’s unsolicited intervention as a “crass misjudgement”. He was so worried by the pronouncements of the Ukip man that he put out a statement on the eve of the poll saying, “I would ask him not to interfere in Austria’s internal affairs. It doesn’t fill me with joy when someone meddles from outside.” His country, he pointed out, had no desire to emulate Brexit. “It is not something I want. We need to build a stronger union,” he said.

Early analysis of the result shows that Farage had introduced enough apprehension into the proceedings for a large number of conservative voters to swing behind Alexander Van der Bellen, the Green candidate. A majority of those who had voted for the right of centre People’s Party, which is in coalition with the Freedom Party in Upper Austria, in the first run-off in May, voted for Van der Bellen. The result that time was annulled over postal vote irregularities. But Hofer had come to within 30,000 votes of winning on that occasion, raising expectations of victory this time around.

Farage says Brexit led to trump

As well as condemning the strident anti-foreigner stance of the Freedom Party, Van der Bellen had repeatedly pointed out his support for the European Union. Researchers found that some in the electorate who were tempted to go with Hofer for his hardline views on migrants and refugees decided instead that the threat of a referendum and possible ensuing upheaval outweighed the “Muslim threat”.

The issue of a referendum also appeared to have galvanised the parts of the population that are most pro-European Union, ensuring they turned up at the polls. Van der Bellen won overwhelmingly among the well-educated, women and pensioners. Overall, the people who voted for him said they had done so for the image of Austria abroad, his strong European Union position and his competence. The Green Party leader beat Mr Hofer by 53.3 per cent of the vote to 46.7 per cent. The turnout was a high 74.2 per cent of the electorate.

Farage had said he would put money on Hofer winning the election. He and his allies did not address the matter of his intervention sabotaging that outcome. Instead, Arron Banks, the Ukip funder, blamed the Austrian people for making the wrong choice. This was, he held, because they “haven’t suffered enough rape and murder yet” in the hands of refugees. “You can’t always get it right,” he tweeted.

The deciding issue for the voters was, of course, the European Union. Nigel Farage’s zealotry makes him see most things through the prism of opposition to Brussels and he fails to understand that populists in Europe are not one-dimensional. They may want reforms to the institutions of the Union, but are not all clamouring to get their countries out of it.

Uwe Schneider, in Vienna, seems to reflect the views of a significant number of voters at the election. He had backed Andreas Khol, of the People's Party, in the past but had some reservations: “This English guy, Farage, said that Hofer would go for a vote on the EU if he won. He sounded really confident as if he knew something. So I voted for Van der Bellen and so did my wife. We don’t want to leave the EU, our relations; our friends don’t want to leave. If there was a vote the majority will vote to stay in the EU; but why do something like such a vote, which will bring in divisions?”

Nigel Farage’s tunnel vision about the European Union will not change. And, since being patted on the head by Donald Trump, he sees himself more and more as a statesman, a key player in shaping the destiny of Europe. It is highly unlikely that he will stop seeking to interfere in the elections to come on the Continent. But if that actually leads to results such as the one in Austria, those who do not want to see the far right gain power may well ask themselves, “What’s not to like?”

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