In blow to far-right, Austria elects pro-Europe environmentalist

Moderate Alexander Van der Bellen soundly defeated his right-wing rival, Norbert Hofer, on Sunday in the vote for Austria's presidency.

Matthias Schrader/AP
Left-leaning presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leading member of the Greens Party, celebrates on the podium at a party of his supporters in Austria's capital, Vienna, on Sunday, after the first official results from the Austrian presidential election showed him with what appears to be an unbeatable lead over right-winger Norbert Hofer.

The tide of populism sweeping through the West hit a stumbling block Sunday in Austria, as the country voted in a left-leaning environmentalist as their president, rejecting his right-wing rival.

Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the country’s Green Party who ran as an independent, soared to victory on a pro-European platform, defeating far-right Norbert Hofer by a projected 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent.

The vote was a repeat of a runoff held in May, but since that initial ballot the global political climate has seen a marked shift, with Britain’s “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union and the victory of Donald Trump in the United States. And while Austria’s vote is being regarded as a rejection of that anti-establishment sentiment, an overwhelming defeat of Italy’s president in a referendum on the very same day may speak of a continuation of the forces that drove “Brexit” and the election of Mr. Trump.

“Today it is not an exaggeration if I say that today we see a red-white-red – the flag of Austria – as a signal of hope and change,” said Mr. Van der Bellen, according to The Local. “A red-white-red signal from Austria to all the capitals of the European Union.”

Indeed, Europe was central to Van der Bellen’s campaign, which warned voters that Mr. Hofer would lead the country in the same direction as Britain with its “Brexit” vote, and urged Austrians not to “play with his fire.”

Other European leaders expressed relief at the result, with Germany’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel saying a "huge weight had been lifted off of Europe," as Deutsche Welle reported; French President François Hollande saying "the Austrian people have chosen Europe and open-mindedness;" and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras describing Van der Bellen’s victory as "a breath of fresh air.”

Yet the vote in Austria was more nuanced than a mere competition between the establishment and an outsider, as Austrian journalist Julia Ebner wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian, explaining that the first round had already eliminated all the mainstream candidates, leaving “a xenophobic gun enthusiast and a green party-backed professor.”

And as Ms. Ebner goes on to say, despite Van der Bellen’s win, 46 percent of Austria’s electorate who chose to vote opted for a party “partly founded by Nazis with a record of anti-Semitism and an agenda of anti-Muslim bigotry.” Had they won, they would have brought to power Europe’s first far-right head of state since World War II.

Over the border in Italy, voters delivered a resounding defeat to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in his referendum seeking reform of the country’s political system, with 60 percent of the ballots being cast against his proposals.

Mr. Renzi has announced his resignation, and while many critics of his proposals had concerns about the concentration of too much power in the office of the prime minister, the vote is also widely regarded as a victory for the populist forces at the heart of the opposition, headed by the Five Star Movement.

Yet neither the Five Star Movement nor the anti-immigrant Northern League want to lead Italy out of the European Union. Indeed, as Nadia Urbinati, political science professor at Columbia University, told Foreign Policy, “I don’t think this has any connection with Europe.”

Most analysts agree that the vote more directly related to Europe is the one in Austria. And while polls have been indicating a “cooling of anti-EU sentiment,” writes Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg View, the election of Van der Bellen is a “far more reliable indicator that Brexit scared more Europeans than it inspired.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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