In a year defined by the resurgence of right-wing populism, Austrian voters bucked the trend by electing independent and former Green leader Alexander Van der Bellen – twice.
Like so many nations that went to the polls in 2016, Austria’s election season – which came to span most of the year – was riddled with surprises. Perhaps the first surprise was that the nation’s election became the subject of great interest overseas. The politics of the country of 8.7 million is usually ignored by all but the most committed Europe watchers, particularly when electing a president; like New Zealand’s Governor-General, the Austrian President has the formal power to appoint heads of government and dissolve the legislature, but in reality acts as a figurehead.
The election first drew international attention at the end of April. Before Britain had voted to leave the European Union, and before Donald Trump had even become the Republican Party’s nominee, Austrian voters first sent a shockwave to establishment politicians across Europe when they voted in the first round of elections, determining which two candidates would then contest the final run-off vote. The presidential candidates backed by the two main centre-left and centre-right parties, the Social Democrats and the People’s Party, came an embarrassing third and fourth place, each with 11 per cent. The third-place finisher, also eliminated, was Irmgard Griss, an independent and former president of the country’s Supreme Court.
The overwhelming winner of the first round, with 35 per cent of the vote, was Norbert Hofer. 45 years old and charismatic, Hofer was seen to put a fresh face on the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a far-right nationalist and Eurosceptic party founded in the 1950s by former Nazi SS officers seeking a method to re-enter Austrian politics. Hofer’s campaign centred around both dissatisfaction toward the country’s two major political parties, who have been governing together in a grand coalition since 2006, and harnessing the anxiety many Austrians felt about the large number of refugees who had entered the country, most passing through to Germany. A gun enthusiast who claimed to carry his Glock with him most places, and a former paraglider until an accident in 2003 left him with a pronounced limp, the presidency looked well within reach for Hofer. The country’s Social Democrat Chancellor resigned, while newspapers across the continent wrote anxiously about the possibility of Europe’s first far-right head of state since the Second World War.
Hofer’s challenger was in many ways his polar opposite. Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, was a well-known face in the country’s politics. An economist first elected to the legislature in 1994, Van der Bellen led the Green Party for ten years, during which time he built a reputation for his calm and precise style in political debates. Where his opponent heaved criticisms on Brussels and European regulations, Van der Bellen campaigned with enthusiastic support for the European project. Where his opponent characterised refugees as a threat to Austria’s security and sovereignty, he reminded voters of the experience of his parents, who arrived in the country as refugees fleeing the Soviet Union’s Stalinist regime. Van der Bellen, though still closely associated with the Greens, ran as an independent, and moved his messaging more toward the political centre. After Van der Bellen emerged as the candidate to face Hofer in the second round, he drew support from politicians across the spectrum. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, made a rare political intervention when he openly stated his desire for Van der Bellen to win.
The second round of voting in late May was the perfect example of a political nail-biter. So close, in fact, that the winner was not determined until all postal votes has been counted. When all the votes were finally tallied up, the political centre breathed a sigh of relief to see that Van der Bellen had just managed to prevail at 50.3 per cent – a margin of 30,000 votes from the 4.6 million cast. However, rumours quickly circulated that voting irregularities had occurred, including impossible turnout in some districts, and improper counting of ballots. The Freedom Party lodged a challenge to the election results in the Constitutional Court. On July 1st, a week before Van der Bellen’s scheduled inauguration, the court shocked the nation by annulling the results of the election, calling for the second round of voting to be held again in October. The basis of the court’s decision was that mail-in ballots had been opened and counted early, and sometimes by people without the requisite qualifications to do so. While there was no evidence that any votes had been tampered with, the violation of electoral regulations affected enough votes to theoretically swing the election to either candidate.
Tension mounted as Austrians prepared to repeat one of the country’s most polarised and close elections. The Freedom Party stood to benefit from intimating that a corrupt political system had attempted to steal an election, regardless of the factual basis for the re-run. Further complications arose in September, when the Interior Minister delayed the re-run another two months to early December, citing a faulty glue on mail-in votes’ envelopes. The Freedom Party’s chairman called the delay a tactical move, saying the real motivation was Hofer’s strong performance in opinion polls. Polls continued to show Hofer ahead through to the day of the vote in December.
December 4th produced a rare polling upset against a populist politician. Van der Bellen prevailed with a massively increased majority over Hofer, capturing 53.8 percent of the vote to Hofer’s 46.2. Hofer conceded that afternoon, shortly after the close of polls. Austrian voters, assumed to be tired and unenthusiastic after almost a year of non-stop campaigning, turned out in slightly higher numbers than they had in the original annulled vote. Politicians and journalists across the hailed Van der Bellen’s victory as a blow against populism and a victory for Europe.
A popular explanation for how Van der Bellen managed to increase his majority in a populist year is that of the backlash against 2016’s right-wing trend. The vote in May, where Hofer’s Eurosceptic candidacy came closest to the presidency, occurred prior to Britain’s EU membership referendum. It’s plausible that voters looked to the results of Britain’s rejection of Europe and found themselves unimpressed. Van der Bellen capitalised on this in his campaigning; his major message in the final weeks was that a Hofer victory could lead to an ‘Oexit’ – an Austrian exit from the EU. Similarly, it’s possible that Austrian voters were put off by the right-wing populist victory of Donald Trump in the United States. Trump is a deeply unpopular figure in Europe, particularly to the moderate voters required to reach an electoral majority, and the Freedom Party joined many far-right parties across Europe in championing his victory.
While Austria’s election has been hailed as a decisive triumph for centrism, liberalism, and pro-Europeanism, it’s important to understand the more nuanced reality. While Van der Bellen did win a convincing majority, Hofer’s far-right candidacy still chalked up more than 2.1 million votes. Nor is this a repudiation of the Freedom Party more broadly. The Austrian presidency, after all, is primarily a ceremonial role; the Freedom Party is still the third largest party in the Austrian legislature, and looks set to win a plurality of votes in the next parliamentary election. The Freedom Party, once thought to have been consigned to the political fringe, continues to enjoy a powerful return that is only set back, not defeated, by Hofer’s loss.
– Taran Molloy, Capital HardTalk.