2nd Mar 2024


Tough challenges ahead for Austria's president

  • President-elect Van der Bellen pledged to address the "differences" in a deeply divided country (Photo: Reuters)

The path to the presidency was bruising enough. But the challenge facing Alexander van der Bellen now is even more formidable.

Austria's president-elect must seek to unite a country right through the middle of which a vitriolic presidential campaign has chiselled a deep cleft.

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  • FPO's Strache remains a contender for chancellor's office in 2018 (Photo: HC Strache)

Speaking on Monday (23 May) after his victory was confirmed, Van der Bellen pledged to address the “differences” the election had exposed. That, however, will be easier said than done.

In the end, Van der Bellen won by just 31,000 ballots – out of a total of 4.6 million. Almost 50 percent of the voters didn’t vote for him, opting instead for the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) candidate Norbert Hofer whose anti-immigrant, eurosceptic, nationalist views are diametrically opposed to those of the liberal pro-European, former University of Vienna economics professor and erstwhile Green Party chairman Van der Bellen.


Hundreds of thousands of Hofer supporters think Van der Bellen is soft on crime, dangerously indulgent of too much immigration, and out of touch with the problems of Austrians. Many of the same blame the ineffectiveness of the ruling mainstream party coalition for rising unemployment, a tabloid-fuelled sense of rising foreigner-linked crime, and a deterioration of the country’s traditionally high quality of life and generous social system.

Many Van der Bellen supporters meanwhile accuse Hofer’s far-right party of seeking to erode Austria’s democracy while applying the intolerant, authoritarian strongman model of Poland, Hungary, or even Russia – with which the FPO and other EU far right parties have close ties.

Austrian media and commentators have expressed concern at the stark and intensifying polarisation of Austrian society around completely different visions of the country’s political and sociocultural future.

A couple of weeks before the run-off vote a small gathering by far-right supporters on the site of the brutal murder of a middle-aged lady by a psychotic Kenyan man who had overstayed his visa almost degenerated into violence when they were confronted by a group of leftwing activists armed with metal bars.

Old political order

Police flooded the working class neighbourhood, residents shared photos of an armoured personnel carrier driving through a narrow street and a police helicopter hovered overhead. No one was hurt but the incident served to highlight the potential for tensions between opposing camps to boil over.

As Van der Bellen pledged to try to heal divisions, far-right candidate Hofer used measured tones in a Facebook post conceding defeat, noting that he was “sad”, but that the effort had not been in vain.

Behind the concession, though, lies a deep-seated conviction that the upwards trajectory of Austria’s far right party, underscored by its best ever performance in a national vote, is unstoppable.

The FPO's leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, has repeatedly declared that Austria’s old political order was dead, and at a Freedom Party event on Sunday, Hofer confidently asserted that either he would be president on the morrow or Strache would be chancellor of Austria in two years at most.

It’s not just bluster. The FPO has more support nationally – consistently polling at over 30 percent - than any other party, and the current government’s mandate expires in 2018.

The two ruling coalition candidates did poorly in the first round of the presidential election. The social-democratic and the christian-democratic candidate each got 11 percent of the votes. The result triggered the abrupt resignation of former chancellor Werner Faymann.

Since then the FPO has regularly demanded early elections, and many feel that the uneasy partnership between the two mainstream parties will fray well before 2018.

Van der Bellen's choice

If it does, and the FPO wins snap elections and finds a willing coalition partner, the profound divisions that president-elect Van der Bellen now says he wants to heal, may explode.

During his campaign Van der Bellen stated that he would never swear in a far-right Eurosceptic chancellor, prompting Hofer to label him a “fascist Green dictator”.

While Van der Bellen appears to have been able to mobilise enough voters to prevent a far-right candidate from winning Austria’s presidency, he and other political figures may be powerless to prevent the far right party from laying claim – by 2018 at the latest, and possibly much earlier – to the country’s chancellorship.

Van der Bellen will have a choice: either renege on a cornerstone pledge of his campaign by endorsing far-right government rule of Austria, or prompt a constitutional crisis and potentially dangerous confrontation between opponents of far-right rule, and Freedom Party supporters - the very people to whom he on Monday extended a placatory symbolic hand.

In Austria, the president traditionally asks the leader of the victorious party to form a government.

But Van der Bellen's spokesman told EUobserver that the new president “would not task Strache with the formation of a government” if the FPO came first in a national election, because the party wants to “destroy the European Union”,

Asked if that position was not at direct odds with Van der Bellen’s stated aim of building bridges, Reinhard Pickl-Herk said that “Austrians have to live together in one country".


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