Why the Green victory in Austria is so important


Austrian presidential result gives hope to those who want to push back the far-right

“FAR-RIGHT weirdo loses election in major shock to status quo,” joked The Daily Mash on Austria’s presidential election re-run. 

Following Ukip’s celebration of Brexit and Trump’s right-wing presidential victory, there were fears that Austria would be the latest state to witness the far-right claim an ascendancy. 

But instead Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), fell back on the last two presidential votes and was clearly defeated by Green Party member  Alexander Van der Bellen.

Provisional results expect a decisive, but not overwhelming, defeat of Hofer by 53.3 per cent to 46.7 per cent. Yet the result was a greater success for the pro-EU, liberal Greens than was expected.

We take a look at the background to the presidential election result.

Previous presidential voting 

While the President of Austria is mainly a ceremonial position, the result took on huge symbolic significance for the direction of Austrian and European politics when Hofer and Van der Bellen triumphed in the first round. 

Hofer received 35 per cent, well ahead of Van der Bellen on 21.3 per cent – making it the first time the two major parties in Austria (the Social Democrats and the People’s Party) would not hold the presidency. 

Hofer’s FPÖ was first led was Anton Reinthaller, a serving Nazi in world war two. It’s right-wing populism, opposition to immigration and the European project, is rejected by liberals and socialists in the country.

Austria’s own history – as somewhere that was a hotbed of Nazism and antisemitism – raises particularly sensitivities about the threat of right-wing extremism in the modern era. 

Van der Bellen, a Green member running as an independent, was himself an outsider. No Green member had ever been a publically elected head of a European state. As a supporter of European federalism, he was attacked by the likes of Nigel Farage – who predicted he would lose. 

May 2016 result: Courts call re-run of Van der Bellen win

With polls placing the candidates kneck-and-kneck, Van der Bellen scraped home with a 50.3 per cent victory in the summer election. 

Hofer had come within 30,000 votes of becoming the first far-right head of state in Europe since Adolf Hitler. 

Yet voting irregularities provided him with a second chance: as a re-run was called for later in the year. 

While young, urban voters had just tipped the result for Van der Bellen first time around – they turned out in high enough numbers to defeat the far-right again.

Blow to agenda of Le Pen and Wilders

The increase in support for Van der Bellen between May and December bucked the expectations that right-wingers were poised to sweep upcoming European elections. 

The Dutch go to the polls next March with Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam and migration ‘Party for Freedom’ currently in the lead. 

But it’s the threat of Marine Le Pen and the Front national in France’s April-May elections that is the most serious threat to the European project. 

With England and Wales voting to exit the EU and challenges to continental integration from right-wing nationalist parties, a triumph for Le Pen’s anti-migration and Eurosceptic politics would be a serious blow to the project. 

However, today (Monday 5 November) European leaders are breathing a sigh of relief and holding up Van der Bellen as an emblem that the continent’s politics can reject the far-right. At least for now. 

Picture courtesy of Michael Gubi

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