In Austria, The Far Right Falls

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On the 4th December, Austrians went to the polls to elect their next president for the third time this year.

The first round saw Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party, and Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party emerge as the two candidates with the highest percentage of votes, which qualified them both to go head to head in a second round of voting scheduled for the 22nd of May.

The results of this second round saw Van der Bellen take a narrow victory with 50.35% of the vote. However, due to voting irregularities the result was annulled and a third vote rescheduled for the 4th of December. Whilst some postal votes are yet to be counted Hofer has conceded to Van der Bellen who has won with around 53% of the vote.

The Austrian presidential election has continued with the populist anti-establishment themes that appear to be sweeping across much of the world throughout 2016, as neither Van der Bellen nor Hofer are representatives of the two major parties which have dominated post-war politics in the country. The two parties in the current Austrian government both received little over 11% of the vote each and were knocked out in the first round, highlighting the unpopularity of the current government.

Hoffer and Van der Bellen are about as politically different as you can imagine. Hofer represents the Eurosceptic, far-right Austrian Freedom Party whilst Van der Bellen represents the far-left pro-EU Green Party (although for the repeated second round he stood as an Independent). The huge ideological gap and the closeness of the results suggests a deeply divided nation with strongly polarised ideas on Austria’s association with the EU as well as issues such as immigration, which dominated the early parts of the campaign.

It should be noted that this is not, as some have suggested, a major victory for the pro-European left. In the run up to the final third round vote the governing centre-right and centre-left parties encouraged their voters to side with Van der Bellen over Hofer. Despite this, Hofer managed to come within a few percentage points of winning the Presidency – a sign which does not bode well for the more centrist parties as they head towards parliamentary elections in 2018. The Austrian Freedom Party are currently dominating opinion polls at around 35% (a full 10% higher than the next largest party) and the Greens polling at around 12%. Clearly, this Presidential vote was less of an endorsement of Van der Bellen and his green politics and more a rejection of Hofer.

One of the few responsibilities of the President is to appoint the Chancellor, a position similar to the UK Prime Minister. Van der Bellen had previously suggested he would not allow a representative of the Austrian Freedom Party to become Chancellor, however should the Freedom Party achieve 35% of the vote in 2018 it would be very difficult to stop it from becoming part of a governing coalition with the centre-right party – an arrangement which has governed Austria previously. The only other viable alternative for government would be a coalition of centre-left, centre-right, and progressive parties, which would likely be divided and ineffective at best or completely unworkable at worst.

It is worth pointing out the election result makes very little difference to how Austria will be governed since Austria’s political system gives most power to Parliament. Whilst the President technically has reasonably far-reaching powers, political convention dictates that the President acts according to the will of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, and the Chancellor. In many ways, the President of Austria plays a similar role to that of the Monarchy in the UK, a figurehead position with limited powers.

Whilst some on the European left have responded to the result with jubilation, such as EU Parliament President Martin Schultz tweeting that the result was a ‘heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism’, this result is not a strong victory for the left in Austria. The fact that a far-right party achieved just over 46% of the vote (despite every other major party uniting against them) shows that the Austrian people are increasingly concerned about issues like immigration and radical Islam, key themes of much of the election campaign.

That a far right party managed to perform so strongly bodes well for Eurosceptic, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders whose party could be the largest in the Netherlands after elections next March and for National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is standing for the French presidency in April 2017.

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