Austrian election sets Europe's nerves on edge
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.
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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.
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.
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.