Come Sunday, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and company will likely be in need of a heavyweight infusion of Xanax to calm their jangled nerves. Italy is facing a critical political moment this weekend. As fate would have it, Italy is not alone. Austria is in a similar situation. The primary difference between the two EU members is that Italian voters will be going to the polls to decide on a constitutional referendum while Austrians will be selecting a new president. The results of both events hold potentially far-reaching consequences for the European Union. We discussed Italy yesterday, so this update will be, in large part, a summary of the upcoming election in Austria.
Sunday is a second chance for the Freedom Party and its candidate Norbert Hofer to capture the presidency. He was defeated in a second round runoff by Alexander Van der Bellen, former head of the Green Party, by a razor thin margin. Hofer and the Freedom Party challenged the results and because absentee ballots had been mishandled, Austria’s Constitutional Court decided that the entire election had to be held again. And so it will be on Sunday.
The significance of this election cannot be undervalued. The president of Austria is mainly a ceremonial post lacking the responsibility of running the day-to-day operations of the government. Yet many Europeans remain very concerned about what a Hofer victory will bring about though. To them Hofer is a far-right wing, anti-establishment candidate cast in the same mold as Donald Trump. Should he win the election on Sunday, it will further solidify the ascendancy of Trump-like politicians across the continent. But a victory by Van der Bellen will not be a sign that the populist, anti-establishment wave has reached its high-water mark. At the most, a Van der Bellen win gives the EU and politicians around Europe time to fortify their positions in preparation for the next electoral swing towards populist candidates.
One year ago, the prospect of a right wing candidate becoming president of a Western European nation-state was nearly impossible to fathom. Now, following Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, the prospect is becoming quite plausible in places like France and Austria. The world is watching and waiting to see how this weekend’s drama plays out. And right now in Brussels, the EU leadership has to be wondering incessantly about what Europe will look like come Monday morning.
The votes have been tallied and Alexander Van der Bellen appears to have narrowly defeated Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria’s presidential election. On Sunday, the race was declared ‘too close to call’and polls gave Hofer a slight lead. Today, once the postal votes were counted and factored in, Van der Bellen has come out on top. 12 percent of Austria’s 6.4 million voters cast their ballots as postal votes, so the number of votes that remained to be counted was significant.
The presidency in Austria is largely a ceremonial post, however, this election came to symbolize Austrians disaffection with the government’s handling of the migrant crisis. Austrian society is deeply divided and Van der Bellen will be tasked with helping to reunify the nation.
The election also served to highlight the growing trends of nationalism in European nations amid the migrant crisis. The inability of the EU to effectively deal with the crisis has infused many far-right political parties and enabled them to reach new political heights. While the Austrian presidential election is now over, the far-right will continue to be a force in Austrian politics. The same goes for the rest of Europe.
It’s obvious that the United States is not the only place where many voters are disenfranchised with establishment politicians and their inability to solve issues. Europeans are of a similar mind and that is becoming evident now.
Europe is watching closely as Austrians go to the polls in a presidential election run-off on Sunday. There is concern that the election could bring about the first far-right head of state in the European Union. Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer was virtually unknown on the international stage, and for that matter, not very well known in Austria before the migrant crisis exploded. In the first round of the presidential election Hofer won with 35 percent of the vote.
The first round result rattled observers across Europe. It signaled the end of the two-party system that has dominated Austrian politics since the end of World War II and indicated the widespread discontent and frustration that Austrians have regarding their government’s handling of the migration crisis. Austria has taken in 90,000 migrants last year at a time when unemployment numbers were starting to rise. Although the government eventually clamped down on immigration and asylum seekers, it was not enough to curb the rise of the far-right.
Hofer’s opponent is Alexander van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader who is running as an independent. Polls suggest the contest between the two will be close. The results of the first round came as a shock to the ruling Social Democrats and their coalition partner, the People’s Party. This will mark the first time since 1951 the head of state will not come from either party. Both parties are struggling to recover but neither will be able to reassert their influence until either the next round of parliamentary elections in 2018 or in the event of snap elections before that.
Following the election results tomorrow, I will post more on the race and the aftermath.