24th Mar 2018

Austrian candidates both seek Trump effect

  • Trump's victory in the US could give "certain advantages" to far-right Norbert Hofer (Photo: Norbert Hofer/Facebook)

Following Donald Trump’s shock victory in the US, all eyes are now on Austria, the West’s next election battleground pitting a continuity candidate against an opponent posing as an anti-system insurgent.

In the lead-up to the 4 December rerun of Austria’s May presidential election, which was annulled by the Constitutional Court because of vote-counting irregularities, Green Party-affiliated candidate Alexander Van der Bellen has cast himself as a pro-EU liberal on a mission to preserve Austria’s international standing and safeguard democratic rights.

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His challenger, Norbert Hofer, of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), has criticised the EU, and has underscored the need for security in Austria against the backdrop of a refugee crisis that he argues the government has grossly mismanaged.

The battle lines had already been drawn before the Trump win. Nonetheless, the event has been seized upon by the Hofer camp as evidence, in the wake of Brexit and increasing poll figures for populist parties across the European Union, that the "ignored" masses are rising up against the "out of touch elites" in an infectious, cross-border, domino-effect revolution.

'Wake-up call'

“The political left and aloof as well as clannish establishment is step-by-step is being punished by the voter,” FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache wrote on Facebook.

Van der Bellen’s camp has sought to respond by seizing on the counter-momentum of people fearful of the wave of illiberal populism embodied in Trump and the Brexit campaign, but also in the governments of Austria's neighbours, Hungary and Poland.

Some voters worry that Austria could be next, especially since the FPO consistently leads opinion polls by more than 10 points and would probably win parliamentary elections – which are expected soon after the presidential vote because of an openly deteriorating relationship between the governing mainstream coalition parties.

Unsurprisingly, the day after the Trump win, Van der Bellen gave a press conference at which he warned that if Hofer won he would use his presidential powers to dissolve parliament and force a snap election that would lead to an FPO-led government too.

Calling the Trump outcome a “wake-up call” for Austrians, he added: “I hope Austria does not become the first Western European country in which right-wing demagogues take power.” To prevent this, he urged “people who don’t particularly like me or Hofer” to nonetheless vote for him.

Hofer shot back in a radio interview that he was bothered by the “hysteria” surrounding Trump's victory, arguing that the “most authentic candidate” had won.

Mobilisation matters

“It’s all going to come down to mobilisation, because anyone who has decided to vote for Van der Bellen or Hofer is not going to change their mind,” political analyst Peter Filzmaier told EUobserver.

He warned of the potential that an unexpected political development such as another terrorist attack in Europe could tilt the mobilisation in favour of Hofer.

Analysts in Austria are still calling the outcome on 4 December too close to call. Van der Bellen won the annulled May election by a whisker of around 15,000 votes.

Polls from before the US election consistently gave Hofer 51 percent to Van der Bellen’s 49 percent, well within the margin of error.

Josef Kalina, a former MP and spin doctor for the Social Democratic Party (SPO) said the Trump victory had indeed given “certain advantages” to Hofer, because the “fear of immigration” and other concerns that handed Trump victory can also be “felt in Europe”.

A survey by pollster Market conducted shortly after the US election found 58 percent of respondents believed Trump's victory would increase Hofer's chances of winning. A mere 14 percent said it would benefit Van der Bellen.

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