Austrians ponder shift to far right
With the rerun of the presidential election on Sunday (4 December), Austria faces a historically defining moment.
Voters are heading to the polls to elect a head of state for the third time this year, after the run-off in May was annulled because of vote-counting irregularities and a repeat scheduled for October was postponed because of faulty postal ballots.
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They must make a choice between two starkly contrasting contenders who could take democratic Austria in opposite directions.
On one hand, mild-mannered liberal economics professor Alexander van der Bellen has pledged to further cement Austria’s place in the European Union, preserve its international reputation and uphold human rights.
He was once the head of the Green Party and regards a flirtation with the Communist Party in his early years as a youthful indiscretion.
He recently backed off from a promise not to allow the leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), Heinz-Christian Strache, form a government if his party won national elections.
The parliamentary election is widely expected next year, amid sour relations within the rulig coalition of the two mainstream centrist Austrian parties.
Van der Bellen has also warned against Hofer’s “authoritarian” tendencies and a “takeover” by the far right.
On the other hand, FPO candidate Norbert Hofer, a deputy president of the Austrian parliament, has threatened to use a presidential prerogative to dismiss the government.
He also wants better ties with Russia, and envisages a leading Austrian role among central European countries, such as Hungary, which are marked by a high degree of official euroscepticism.
In a television talk show, he uttered the now-notorious phrase: “You’ll be amazed at all the things that are possible [when I am president]”.
Only a year ago, he appeared to welcome the notion of an Austrian referendum on EU membership, though he now says this should only happen if Turkey joins, or if the EU becomes even more politically centralised.
He takes a hard line on immigration and security, and he warns of the danger of the Islamisation of Europe.
In the European Parliament, his party is allied with far-right eurosceptic forces, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands.
He has warned that Van der Bellen would exacerbate the refugee crisis, which saw 90,000 asylum requests last year in Austria, a country of just over 8 million inhabitants, and would increase the risk of Islamist attacks because he is wobbly on security.
Van der Bellen appears to offer more of the same pro-EU political stability that his predecessors displayed.
Hofer, who claims Van der Bellen is supported by out-of-touch “elites”, is tapping into the populist tide washing over the West. He would be the first far-right head of state in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
Van der Bellen is predictable. Hofer is anything but.
Austria is politically split down the middle, virtually half and half.
In the annulled run-off, Van der Bellen won by a sliver of 30,000 votes - less than one percentage point.
In recent weeks, tensions have risen again. Billboards of both candidates have been defaced. Social media is awash with slurs. Derogatory accusations have been hurled by supporters of the two camps.
The momentum, in a populism-driven, post-Brexit and pre-Trump world, appears to favour Hofer, who has said that a trait he shares with the US president-elect is “authenticity”.
Austria’s two main online betting agencies have in the last week shifted the odds of victory to significantly favour Hofer, and a recent Gallup poll placed him (52%) ahead of Van der Bellen (48%). That lead was still within the margin of error.
Another poll indicated that a sizeable majority of Austrians feel that Trump’s victory serves Hofer. Yet another found that half of all Austrians would like a “strong leader like Trump”.
Reports on Thursday that unemployment has edged down year-on-year for the month of November for the first time in five years are being eclipsed by news of record refugee arrivals in Italy.
Apparent threats by Turkey to unleash waves of refugees on the EU if political discord between the two persists have also made headlines.
A key determinant in this round will be mobilisation.
In May voter turnout was over 70 percent. There is concern in both camps that voter fatigue may dent support at the polls. That is why both candidates are billing this rerun run-off as crucial for Austria.
A fork in the road lies ahead.