Austria just made a last-minute swerve away from the far right

Alexander Van der Bellen  beat the far right—just about.
Alexander Van der Bellen beat the far right—just about.
Image: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader
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This weekend’s presidential battle was one of the most dramatic in Austrian election history, with two candidates from opposite ends of the spectrum in a dead heat after Sunday’s run-off vote. Norbert Hofer, the gun-toting far-right Freedom Party candidate, almost had victory within his grasp, until the postal ballot results clinched it for independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, who eked out a win with 50.3% of the vote.

The 72-year-old Van der Bellen is a former leader of the Green Party, a war veteran, and an economics professor. He campaigned against nationalism and is outspoken against the government’s cap on asylum seekers.

European leaders breathed a sigh of relief as Austria demonstrated—if only by a hair’s breadth—that right-wing political parties can be defeated if people will broadly band together against them.

The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, had warned before Sunday’s election that a win by the Freedom Party could have consequences for the border region between Austria and Italy, while EU Parliament president Martin Schulz said (link in German) it would “change the character of Europe.” Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, said, “That a country at the heart of Europe can show such support to the far right barely 70 years on from the Holocaust shows that our collective memories are failing.”

French prime minister Manuel Valls tweeted: “It’s a relief to see the Austrians reject populism and extremism. Everyone in Europe must draw lessons from this.”

Indeed, Austria’s close shave could also serve as a lesson for US Democrats and moderate Republicans worried about the much-reviled Republican candidate Donald Trump’s onward march, as well as voters in the UK who want to stay in the European Union come the June 23 referendum.

A victory for Hofer—who has worn a cornflower buttonhole reminiscent of the Nazis at official functions as recently 2013—would have been a red letter day for Europe’s anti-Islam, anti-immigration parties, including Germany’s Alternative for Germany, France’s Front National, and Britain’s UKIP.

And while his defeat follows the pattern of far-right parties elsewhere in Europe, it is remarkable just how deeply the 45-year-old has shaken Austria’s established political scene, where the center-left Social Democrats and conservative People’s party have dominated since the end of the Second World War. The Freedom Party’s surge in popularity forced the resignation of chancellor Werner Faymann earlier this month, after he lost the confidence of his Social Democrats.

Unsurprisingly, Hofer found most of his support in the rural border states most affected by the refugee influx, while Van der Bellen commanded the urban and the female electorate.

While the role of president is largely ceremonial in Austria, Hofer had said he would make use of a right to dissolve parliament before the 2018 general elections of it did not act against immigration.

His recent debate on Austrian TV with Van der Bellen descended into a foul-mouthed “slugfest,” with the commentator summing it up thusly: “Both disgraced themselves, the office of the president is damaged, that was kindergarten level.”