Presidential elections In Austria: The Liberal candidate won. But the far right didn’t lose

6 December 2016 – VoxEurop

Former Green leader Alexander Van der Bellen was elected president on 4 December in an historic runoff with populist candidate Norbert Hofer. His election is a sign of hope for the European left, but Hofer’s score indicates almost half the population endorses his nationalist views.

This time, it seems, it was for real.

Austria voted, again, in a run-off that pitched the independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, backed by the Green party, against the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer. Van der Bellen won, with 51.7 per cent of the vote.

As an Austrian living abroad, I was surprised that this “third” round of the Austrian presidential elections did not capture the European public opinion as much as the second round held in May this year. Perhaps it was because we were all tired.

Tired of yet again profiling Austria’s failure to confront its National-Socialist past; of yet again analyzing how the establishment parties over the last decades transformed Austrian politics into a dull series of sleep-walks, during which one governing grand coalition succeeds another one. But despite the low political significance of the presidency, and the relatively limited importance of Austria in European and international politics, Sunday’s vote didn’t loose its symbolism.

Austria is as much a signal of hope to progressive political forces on the left and right who refuse extremism as a warning to all establishment parties who believe in business as usual. Van der Bellen’s victory wasn’t an endorsement of politics as usual. And in a political year dominated by astonishing anti-establishment decisions, such as the Brexit vote or the election of Donald Trump, coupled with a rise of the far-right vote all over Europe, Austria is as much an exception as it is the rule.

It’s an exception because the populist option didn’t win in the end; and it’s the rule because the populist option entered the political mainstream.

Van der Bellen’s victory seems to herald at least some good news for the pro-European left: most of his gains came from people who didn’t vote in May, according to analysis by the state broadcaster ORF.

About 150,000 more people went to the polling booths compared with May. Austria can certainly be seen as a victory for the broad left, lead by a progressive, pro-European candidate. We should not downplay this victory: fearmongering about Europe's imminent takeover by the far right is at best not going to influence voters’ decisions, and at worst push them in the arms of the populist extremes.

As I wrote back in May, after Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly won the then annulled election, “half the electorate voting for a far-right candidate isn’t taboo anymore.” This hasn’t changed. The Green candidate won. But the far right didn’t lose.

The spin by Hofer’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) kicked in on election night: never had the party been able to take such a big share of the vote; and France’s Marine Le Pen already championed its Austrian ally for a win in the next parliamentary elections. The FPÖ, under its leader Heinz-Christian Strache, is leading in national polls.

Austria does not have a tradition of a “national coalition” against the far-right. This election might have been the first sign of such a movement: even though the center-right ÖVP did not officially endorse a candidate, most party leaders came out in favour of Van der Bellen. Hofer blamed his defeat on the decision of ÖVP leader Reinhold Mitterlehner to endorse Van der Bellen, despite creating tensions within his own party.

But faced with the prospect of a massive loss at the general elections, the ÖVP might rethink that position soon, in order to be able to govern in a coalition with the far-right FPÖ, like the 2000–2006 government.

As I wrote, again, back in May, “the country is still polarised between two world views: an open, pro-European one; and a nationalistic one, promising closed borders and rejecting the EU.” This hasn't changed either. Van der Bellen has already vowed to work with and for all Austrians, but this probably won’t undo the competing realities in which the two candidates' supporters live. In a way, Austria is just another Western democracy faced with challenges of social media, or, what some call “post-truth.” Never before has Austria seen such a nasty campaign.

Now, after nearly one year of campaigning, the Green candidate won. But his Far-right contender didn’t at all loose. The country is divided. I am sure the wounds will heal, but, as after other elections all over Europe in which the establishment narrowly escaped a fatal defeat without it leading to real change, they will heal on the surface only.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.