In post-Brexit Europe, why Austria’s presidential re-vote matters

Austria's high court has called for a redo of the May elections, giving the far-right party another opportunity to take power. 

Ronald Zak/AP/File
Alexander Van der Bellen waves to his supporters in Vienna on May 23 after being elected president of Austria. The country's highest court ruled yesterday that the presidential elections must be repeated due to irregularities in the absentee vote count.

In May, Austrians waited with bated breath as the votes were counted for their presidential election. Nearly 24 hours ticked by before the results were finally announced: Alexander Van der Bellen, an economics professor and left-leaning candidate, had won.

Not long after, his opponent, Norbert Hofer, conceded defeat on Facebook. Mr. Hofer’s campaign was the first time that Austria’s Freedom Party, founded by former Nazis and Teutonic nationalists, had won nearly 50 percent of the vote. Amid a growing European shift to the right, his defeat, also meant that a European state has still never elected a far-right populist leader since Nazi Germany.

But that could change, soon.

On Friday, Austria’s highest court threw out the results of the May election, citing irregularities with ballot counting, and calling for a re-do of the vote. New elections will be held between the two men, who are now again vying for leadership, this time in a post-Brexit Europe.

Across Europe, nationalist and far-right parties have gained political traction in a way that has not been seen since World War II. Concern about refugees and national cohesion, combined with economic trends and unemployment have fueled the rise of conservatives from Hungary to the Netherlands, Italy, and Finland.

But an outright win of a presidential race for one of these parties has yet to be seen. If Hofer is elected to lead Austria, it would be a major marker in European nationalist politics. Apart from the ideological meaning of such a win, it could have tangible effects on European Union stability.

Unlike Mr. Van der Bellen, a pro-EU politician who greeted foreign journalists in English during his first speech as president-elect, Hofer has voiced support of a Brexit-style referendum in Austria, the New York Times reports. On Sunday, Hofer told the newspaper Österreich that if the European Union “evolves in the wrong direction, then for me the time would have come to say: So, now we have to ask the Austrians.”

In 1994, more than two-thirds of the country voted to join the EU. But much has changed in the continent and the country since then. Austria has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees pass through, and some 90,000 apply for asylum there. Even prior to Brexit, Austria has become skeptical of the EU bloc. In May, the Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana reported from Vienna, writing:

Today the Alpine nation is one of the most Euroskeptic countries in the EU, rivaling Cyprus for its malcontent. In the United Kingdom, which is voting next month on whether it wants to remain as part of the EU, 31 percent have a negative image of the EU, compared to 41 percent of those in Austria (and Cyprus), according to the latest Eurobarometer. 

Hofer’s leadership would add a voice among many with similar complaints about the balance of the power in the EU, like the statement issued last week by Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia for EU reforms.

In the current climate, the presidential vote in Austria could emerge as the first major test of European unity after the Brexit vote. 

Hans Rauscher, a columnist for the liberal Austrian newspaper Der Standard said that the European Union “could very well become a theme in the coming campaign,” reports The New York Times.

The election date hasn't been set, but is expected to be in September or October.

In the meantime, the Washington Post reports, that "the vacant job of president is filled in the interim by the nation’s three top parliamentarians — of which Hofer is one. That means he will assume that role, along with peers from Austria’s two main parties, starting July 8."

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