Thursday

21st Jun 2018

Analysis

Austrian election sets Europe's nerves on edge

  • Far right candidate lost by less than one percent in May. Voters turnout will be crucial to the outcome of the October rerun. (Photo: Hofer's campaign)

The decision by Austria’s Constitutional Court to annul the outcome of the May presidential election has unsettled pro-European officials and politicians across the EU who fear that, after Britain, Austria could be the next country to turn its back on the European Union.

The rerun of the second round, which will be held on 2 October, has revived the spectre of an elected far right head of state in Europe for the first time since the Second World War.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... our join as a group

  • How many will see in Green candidate Van der Bellen the head of state best placed to contribute to a reformulation of the EU vision? (Photo: Reuters)

In May, the EU-sceptic and far-right candidate Norbert Hofer lost by less than a percentage point to the pro-EU Green Party-aligned contender Alexander van der Bellen.

With national elections coming up next year in the Netherlands and France, where far-right parties pose a significant challenge, all eyes will be on the outcome in Austria.

Post-Brexit plight

The post-Brexit referendum plight of the EU is set to take centre-stage in the Austrian rerun.

Top officials from Hofer’s Freedom Party have suggested that if the European Union, within a year, does not show that it is acting in the interest of Austrian people by renouncing a more centralised union - a vague, easily malleable demand - then they would also seek to hold a referendum on EU membership.

Polls have the two candidates neck and neck again.

The decisive question this time around is: How many swing voters will be pushed into the arms of a strong, nationalist figure like Hofer by the Brexit vote in the belief that ‘their’ Austria is under threat?

How many of them yearn for a man does not mince his words or his policies and who, in their view, is putting Austria first?

The vote will also pose the question how many people see in Van der Bellen the head of state best placed to contribute to a reformulation of the EU vision that protects Austria’s interests but spares it the potential pitfalls of an Oexit (Österreich-exit in German) or Auxit (Austria-exit) - the far right have not yet decided which term they favour).

A sizeable portion of Van der Bellen voters ticked his name the first time around just to keep Hofer away from the presidency.

Hands-on approach

Another factor will be voter turnout.

A recent poll indicated that only 50 percent of Austrians felt the rerun was justified, prompting concern that apathy could result in a lower turnout than last time (about 73 percent) - a development that could play into the hands of the far right.

This explains why Austria’s outgoing president, chancellor, interior minister and the Constitutional Court itself have all said that the rerun is important for Austrian democracy, after concrete evidence of mail vote counting irregularities, albeit with no signs of deliberate manipulation.

Austrian presidents have traditionally played a ceremonial role, but the constitution allows them to dismiss the government.

In the run-up to the now-annulled vote, Hofer had pledged to take a hands-on approach to the presidency, suggesting he would accompany the country’s chancellor to European Council meetings in Brussels and threatening to dismiss the government if they - in his view - failed to serve the Austrian people well in his first year in office.

In a TV talk show he said that people “will be amazed at all the things that are possible when I am president”.

Dominoes waiting to fall?

Hofer’s rhetoric is designed to position his Freedom Party at the centre of a league of far-right movements stretching across France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.

His potential victory is also seen as a threat to Austria’s EU-style liberal democracy.

A Hofer win could be followed by a Freedom Party victory in Austria’s next parliamentary elections, due by the end 2018, resulting in a full takeover of the country by anti-EU forces.

The electorate is divided between educated elites and the working class, the city and the countryside, liberal EU idealists and nationalist EU critics. It is a divide that stretches beyond Austria’s borders to be replicated in many European societies.

That is why the outcome of this election will determine whether Austria is fortified as a bastion of EU values, or becomes another domino waiting to fall.

Basque threat of 'second front' for independence

Last weekend some 175,000 people in the Basque country demanded a 'right to decide'. For some, it means more autonomy from Spain, others independence. "We want to open a second front within the Spanish state," says one Basque politician.

News in Brief

  1. PES to announce 'spitzenkandidat' names in October
  2. Macedonian parliament ratifies name deal
  3. EU to hit US with import duties from Friday
  4. Commission: New on-road CO2 test would take years
  5. Juncker orders migration 'mini-summit' on Sunday
  6. Luxembourg gave illegal state aid to energy firm
  7. Negotiators lower finger printing age of refugees to six
  8. EU to lift its internal data storage barriers

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  2. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMHRMI Launches Lawsuits Against Individuals and Countries Involved in Changing Macedonia's Name
  3. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  4. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  6. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  8. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  10. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  11. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network

Latest News

  1. How to get around the EU posted workers directive
  2. EU needs comprehensive 'sexuality education'
  3. Fate of EU refugee deal hangs in the balance
  4. Merkel, Macron in pre-summit pledge on migration, eurozone
  5. Hungary to push ahead with 'Stop Soros' law on NGOs
  6. Swedish party puts EU referendums back in fashion
  7. EU summit set to outsource asylum
  8. Dutch request to clarify Brexit Britons' rights annulled

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  2. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  4. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  7. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  9. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  10. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  11. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  12. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us