Austrians Reject Far-Right Candidate

Source: Internet

 

Voters in Austria demonstrated the other Trump effect on Sunday — beware. Or at least, in rejecting a far-right candidate for president, they showed the limitation of President-elect Donald J. Trump’s tailwinds on a continent where extremist politics have traditionally brought cataclysm.

Populist forces have unsettled politics in Europe and the United States, frequently by using fake news and fanning fears of globalization and migration. The British vote to leave the European Union this year was complicated by just such anxieties. A still-uncertain result in Italy’s referendum on constitutional changes on Sunday hinged on a range of issues.

But the choice before Austrians was perhaps the starkest anywhere.

The bitter yearlong campaign for the presidency pitted Norbert Hofer, a leader of the far-right Freedom Party, founded in the 1950s by former Nazis, against a mild-mannered 72-year-old former Green Party leader, Alexander Van der Bellen.

This was a zero-sum political choice, and Mr. Van der Bellen’s decisive victory — by 6.6 percentage points with 99 percent of votes counted — left his supporters predictably jubilant, if surprised.

In recent days, they had seemed resigned to fearing that Mr. Trump’s victory, in particular, was tilting the outcome here against them.

“It is unbelievable,” said Wolfgang Petritsch, a veteran diplomat, a biographer of the former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and the chairman of Austria’s Marshall Plan foundation. “Austria saves the world!” he said with a twist of irony.

Austria is too small a sample size to know whether the populist tide is abating. Europe is still facing pivotal elections next year in France and Germany, as well as the possibility of a snap election in Italy, depending on the results of Sunday’s referendum. Those races will define politics in the European Union for the remainder of the decade.

But Austria does seem to disprove the idea that Mr. Trump’s victory accelerated a broader public acceptance of populist, anti-establishment forces. In recent days, many in Austria had seemed resigned to the likelihood of a Trump bounce for the far right. Mr. Hofer himself said in an interview last month that the American election had bolstered support for his Freedom Party.

Yet it was not the case.

“People followed Trump with curiosity, shock, fear, jubilation, but I don’t think they drew any conclusions,” Johannes Hübner, a parliamentary deputy for the Freedom Party, said on Sunday night. “It’s like a Hollywood movie.”

Indeed, he said, maybe the message Austrians received was “beware of another Trump — don’t vote for Hofer. ”

Mr. Van der Bellen, who exudes a calm ease in public, campaigned as a sort of anti-Trump, reveling in corny, retail politicking.

In an interview in late September, he noted that he had been teased for donning traditional Austrian jackets and attending the numerous village fetes and festivals that are the essence of rural life here. Especially, he said, when “it emerges that I like doing this.”

He also suggested then that the intensity of the campaign had led to a broad politicization across Austria, where the voting age is 16. He said Britain’s “tragic” vote to leave the European Union had made people think twice about Austria imitating any such move.

Mr. Hofer’s party is more skeptical of Europe, but he had also stopped well short of calling for Austria to leave the European Union.

The country, which straddles the heart of Europe from Italy and Switzerland to Hungary and Slovakia, depends heavily on tourism and exports for its comfortable living standards.

A choice to be the first country in postwar Europe to elect a far-right leader for president could only have jeopardized that position.

The vote was widely watched across Europe as a measure of how high fringe parties could climb in mainstream politics, turning what is normally a sleepy contest for a largely ceremonial post into a measure of the populist wave that has advanced on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anti-migrant and anti-Muslim forces have already ridden a populist path to power in Hungary and Poland and have gained strength in France and even in Germany, and the United States since the election of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Van der Bellen had appealed to Austrians to vote for reason over extremes. Mr. Hofer campaigned on an “Austria First!” slogan, and said he wanted to lead a country that was secure “for our children and grandchildren,” playing on fears of the tide of migrants and refugees that have entered Europe.

Mr. Hofer’s failure is now likely to reverberate around Europe, where the far right has made inroads from Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to the far-right Alternative for Germany party, both of which have begun eating into the market share for mainstream conservatives.

Establishment politicians are likely to breathe a sign of relief and interpret the result as a sign that fringe parties still face what many in Europe have long considered a built-in barrier to broader support because of historical associations with fascism.

One person who may thank the Austrians, with whom she has tussled over immigration this year, is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Austria’s rejection of the anti-European wave comes as Ms. Merkel heads this week into a congress of her conservative party at which she will be anointed its candidate for a fourth term in elections next year.

Ms. Merkel had no immediate public reaction to the Austrian vote, but her vice chancellor, the Social Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel, called it “a victory for reason.”

Still, earlier this year, Mr. Hofer made the biggest advances of any populist in Europe, racking up almost 50 percent of the vote when he lost a presidential runoff by just 31,000 votes.

His party contested the slim victory of Mr. Van der Bellen, and Austria’s highest court ordered a rerun on procedural grounds. That was then postponed from October to Sunday after absentee ballots were found to have faulty glue.

Despite the drawn-out process, voter interest and emotions ran high.

The presidential contest has been the most hard-fought since 1986, when Austrians elected Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations secretary general, despite revelations that he had concealed his service in Hitler’s armed forces close to the sites of Nazi atrocities in the Balkans during World War II.

An array of establishment figures lined up behind Mr. Van der Bellen, but Mr. Hofer garnered some support from mainstream conservatives in the People’s Party, which declined to throw its weight behind the former Greens leader.

Mr. Petritsch and other political veterans said the sheer length of the campaign worked in Mr. Van der Bellen’s favor. He was the clear favorite of voters in Vienna and other cities, and apparently was able to build from that urban base and reach out into rural areas where Mr. Hofer won in May but performed less strongly on Sunday.

“He built a broad coalition,” said Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, the editor in chief of the liberal daily Der Standard. Now, she said, Austrians will expect Mr. Van der Bellen to mend the rifts that appeared during months of bitter campaigning.

After early projections showed him clearly lagging, Mr. Hofer, 45, quickly conceded his defeat on his Facebook page, asking “all Austrians to stick together and to work together.”

“Dear friends,” Mr. Hofer wrote, “you supported me so well and I am infinitely sad that it did not work out.”

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