Austria opts against far-right president, but threat of extremism still looms

In Austria's presidential election, former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly beat far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer.

Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
Left-wing independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen smiles as he addresses the media after winning Austrian presidential election in Vienna, Monday.

The far right’s advance in Europe was curbed by the results of Austria’s presidential race. But there is still much for the center to do to build this one success into a lasting bastion against extremist politics.

The results were so close after the count Sunday night that the race was decided by postal ballots tallied today. In the end, Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader, squeaked out a victory over far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer. Official results show Mr. Van der Bellen got 50.3 percent of the votes, Mr. Hofer 49.7 percent.

While the president's role in Austria is largely ceremonial, Van der Bellen will be closely watched as was the race itself, which was thrust into the international spotlight on the prospect of the first far-right head of state in Western Europe in decades.

Van der Bellen now takes over at a time of unprecedented challenges for several reasons.

How much of a mandate?

Van der Bellen starts his mandate with questions from his opponents about how much he really can lead Austria.

In the first round, Mr. Hofer won the most votes with more than 35 percent, while Van der Bellen received 21 percent. According to a poll in the local media, 40 percent of Van der Bellen's supporters in the second round backed him not out of enthusiasm for the former economics professor, but because they simply wanted to thwart the far-right.

That happened in France, after the first round of regional elections in December showed the far-right National Front in first place. The center-right and center-left joined forces in the second round to block its ascent. It worked then, but FN's popularity remains, surpassing that of the ruling Socialists. FN leader Marine Le Pen is poised to make it to round two of the more important presidential race in 2017.

Van der Bellen also will have to contend with the forces that represent about half of the country – based on the race results – that catapulted Hofer to the cusp of the presidency in the first place. As we reported in part three of an ongoing series on European identity, Austria, at the geographical heart of Europe, is being pulled both east and west. This is especially true with regards to mass migration.

The new president will thus find himself in the middle of the battle over what the European Union expects of its member states on the refugee question – and what is the moral thing to do. Passions will run high. If Van der Bellen panders to public sentiment, he could lose his authority, as did former Chancellor Werner Faymann after he backtracked on the refugee crisis, by first welcoming them and then shutting borders.

Austria's 'shaken postwar consensus'

There are historical reasons that underline the disparate sentiments today. But there are also current political and economic ones.

Used to being a top performer in Europe, Austria’s unemployment numbers are creeping up. Today it’s one of the most Euroskeptic countries in the bloc: 41 percent of people in Austria have a negative view of the EU, according to the latest Eurobarometer, the highest in Europe along with Cyprus. That compares to 31 percent of respondents with a negative view of the EU in the United Kingdom, which is about to vote in a referendum on whether it wants to stay in the bloc.

Finally, while the victory of an independent as head of state buoys those looking for alternatives for governance in Europe – where the mainstream is being tested like no other time since World War II - it also signifies great political flux in Austria.  

Since 1945, Austria has been governed predictably, with power rotating between the center-right and center-left. This time, neither of the mainstream parties even made it to the second round of the presidential race, which prompted Mr. Faymann’s surprise resignation in-between the two rounds.

As analyst Judy Dempsey for Carnegie Europe puts it, the race “has shaken Austria’s comfortable postwar consensus.”

She writes that “The new chancellor, Christian Kern, has promised a fresh beginning for Austrian politics, which over the years had become sewn up between the conservatives and the Social Democrats. But the increasing popularity of the Freedom Party and the ongoing refugee crisis are changing the face of Austrian politics and Europe’s political landscape.”

Hofer seemed to underscore the tough political battles ahead for his opponent in conceding defeat on his Facebook page. “The effort that went into this campaign isn’t lost,” he wrote, “but is an investment in the future.”

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