In tense Austria runoff, two conflicting 'Trump effects' are in play

The far-right Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer is in a presidential runoff Sunday, and many feel the US result has buoyed his campaign. But Trump's unexpected ascent has also stirred the campaign of his Green rival.

Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
A man passes presidential election campaign posters of far-right Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer and Alexander Van der Bellen, who is supported by the Greens, in Vienna on Thursday. Mr. Van der Bellen's poster reads, "Serve Austria and not a party," while Mr. Hofer's reads, "For Austria with heart and soul. So help me God."

Margot Rubiko has never volunteered for a political campaign before. But on a recent day at the Green Party headquarters in downtown Vienna, she joins a steady stream of volunteers doing more than merely picking up their stickers, pamphlets, and posters to pass out.

Like many volunteers, she considers herself part of the last line of defense against the presidential election of Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party this Sunday. During a recent trip to Spain, she says locals there prodded her about Austria’s flirtation with a party rooted in Nazism. Still, she worries, “even in my circle of friends, people don’t seem to realize how serious this is.”

For all the speculation about a so-called “Trump effect” on Europe’s populists – that Donald Trump’s victory in the US will buoy their rising, local anti-establishment movements – there is also a reverse effect underway. Those stunned by Mr. Trump’s blustery, exclusionary rhetoric have been stirred into action, determined not to see a similar figure take power at home.

Austria’s runoff vote has taken on outsize significance in the wake of shock political turns that began with Britain’s choice to leave the European Union and reached fever pitch with the election of Trump as the next American president. Mr. Hofer would be the first far-right head of state in the European Union since World War II, breaking a barrier in a rich, European nation at the heart of Europe.

“It is part of this Western phenomenon, that we have more and more disgruntled citizens who want to do whatever it takes just to change the system, where change is more important than substance,” says Johannes Pollak, head of the European Integration research group at the Institute for Advanced Studies.

But in this shifting ground of Western politics, he sees the other side spurring into action too, to protect the Europe that has it right and questioning what else needs to be righted. “It is not good to just say, ‘this is scary.’ We need to rather ask ourselves, ‘how could this happen? What have we done wrong?’”

Divided societies

The polls are far too close to predict. This is a repeat of a run-off in May, in which Hofer and his rival, independent Alexander Van der Bellen backed by the Green Party, faced off after knocking out both the center-right and center-left parties that have governed Austria since the postwar era. Mr. Van der Bellen squeaked out a victory by just 31,000 votes, but a court ordered a redo over voting irregularities.

The drawn-out race – for a post that has been largely ceremonial – has added to a sense of voter fatigue at home, says Reinhard Heinisch, a professor of political science at Salzburg University. But the world is watching, and the context is very different now. When the two first faced off, Brexit hadn’t yet happened, Trump’s victory was considered a remote possibility, and a terrorist had yet to run over and kill 86 people in Nice, France.

Those behind Hofer are driven by what’s propelling right-wing sentiments (as well as left-wing sentiments, which will be on display in Italy in a referendum Sunday) elsewhere: a distrust of globalization, economic stagnation, and immigration.

Nicholas Lindmaier, a high school graduate passing out fliers for Hofer on a recent day, says Nazi references are dirty politics; Hofer simply puts "Austria first." “We need to help people, but we need to help everybody, not just refugees,” he says.

Arif De Mendelssohn, a psychiatrist in Vienna, says he supports Van der Bellen’s views on European integration, the environment, and above all the way he'd tackle the problems fueled by inequality around the world. “He thinks things over, realizing the complexity of the world we live in,” he says, and is not just “offering simple solutions.”

Austrian society has long been polarized, says Sylvia Kritzinger, a professor of government at the University of Vienna, but the dividing lines have changed. “Now we have polarization along different cleavages, the losers of globalization and the winners of globalization,” she says.

It is the losing side that has been gaining political momentum since the first run-off, capped by Trump’s victory that Hofer, along with other far-right leaders, have praised.

'Trump effects'

But in that same time span, support for the EU has grown too, according to a study by the German group Bertelsmann Stiftung. In Austria, Hofer was forced to temper his own anti-EU ideas in the wake of Brexit.

And Van der Bellen supporters are pouncing on that sentiment, for example by reaching out to an estimated 50,000 young Austrians who reached voting age since this presidential election started. At the Green Party headquarters, receptionist Talita Simek says she has seen volunteer participation surge since Trump’s win.

One volunteer is Mark Long, an American and longtime Vienna resident, who joined Van der Bellen's movement this year because he understands what is at stake. Mr. Long says Trump’s victory in his native country left him feeling “sick.”

“We can stop this wave of hate that started with Brexit and became huge with Trump,” he says. “We can turn the wave against itself."

The parallels don’t end at Hofer and Trump. Van der Bellen would be the first nationally elected head of state in Europe for the Green Party. Yet like Hillary Clinton, who offered America the prospect of its first female president, Van der Bellen’s Green credentials aren’t electrifying the nation, even with Trump’s victory sounding bells among environmentalists worldwide. Instead, his ties to the status quo have overshadowed a message of renewal. The party headquarters sits in a well-off district of baby boutiques and organic health food stores.

But the candidate is trying hard to show he is not just part of an elite, establishment bubble, says Markus Wagner, an associate political science professor at the University of Vienna. “In the campaign this summer he was trying to appear traditional, hiking, pictures with pigs and cows ... imagery about nature,” he says, "a mixture of traditionalism and environmentalism.”

The ability to excite voters and get them to the polls is key to the Greens’ success Sunday. The only question is whether Trump's victory is spurring Van der Bellen's campaign more than it is Hofer's.

"It’s going to mobilize voters on the right, giving them a sense that [victory] is there for the taking," says Dr. De Mendelssohn. "On the other hand it is leading to more mobilization among those who want to avoid this sort of thing from happening here.... It’s hard to know which of these ‘Trump effects’ is going to surpass the other."

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