Austrians will vote Sunday in an election that could propel the far right to the country’s highest office for the first time since World War II.
The vote is a rerun of an election in May that was won by the tiniest of margins by Alexander Van der Bellen, the 72-year-old independent candidate backed by the Green Party, who defeated Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old presidential candidate of the far-right Freedom Party. Hofer had been favored to win, but Van der Bellen triumphed by 31,026 votes, or 0.6 percentage points. His victory was attributed to the 750,000 postal votes that were cast in the election. Two weeks later, the Freedom Party, citing a “massive number of irregularities and mistakes,” said it would appeal the result. It alleged that postal ballots in 94 out of Austria’s 117 districts were opened before rules permitted their unsealing, and that they were counted by people who weren’t authorized to do so. In July, Austria’s Constitutional Court upheld that appeal and annulled the result. The court found that though rules had been broken in a way that could have influenced the results, there was no proof the vote count was manipulated. The election was rescheduled for October 2, but the vote was postponed when it was discovered in September that the glue on the postal ballots wasn’t sticking. A new date was fixed for the election: Sunday, December 4. Polls show a tight race this time around, too.
Austria hasn’t had a president since July 8, when Heinz Fischer stepped down. Although the post is largely ceremonial, it does serve some important purposes: It can influence the formation of a new government and even move to dismiss an existing government. That’s where a Hofer victory can be pivotal. The Freedom Party is ahead in most polls for the parliamentary elections, which must be held before the end of 2018. If it wins, the far-right will have a hold on Austria’s political system, upending the control that the center-right and center-left have had on the country since the end of World War II.
But the consequences could stretch beyond Austria. The old European political order, founded on the ruins of war and based on open borders and free trade, is under threat from a far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-globalization alliance stretching through the continent. Indeed, Hungary, which borders Austria, has its own far-right leader; Netherlands may get its own, as well; and there is a slim possibility next year that a far-right president emerges in France and a far slimmer one that a far-right chancellor emerges in Germany. Donald Trump’s election victory in the U.S. has also boosted the Freedom Party. Hofer told the The New York Times that Trump’s victory has “loosened” the stigma in Austria against voting for his party, which was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis. Indeed, writing in the Times this week, Robert Misik, a journalist and author, noted that the Freedom Party is “a potential role model for the new European right.”
But, as Misik and the polls point out, Van der Bellen still has a chance. Last week he posted on Facebook an appeal from an 89-year-old woman identified only as Gertrude. The woman, a resident of Vienna, said she was a Holocaust survivor, and compared the political tone in Austria to conditions faced by Jews under the Nazis.
“The thing that bothers me the most is the denigration of others, the attempt to bring out people’s most base feelings instead of their decency,” she said. “I have seen this once before ... and it hurts and scares me.”
The video has garnered more than 3.2 million views, and has galvanized Austria’s left. Another motivating factor for the left: Trump’s victory in the U.S. Thousands of volunteers have turned out for Van der Bellen. But the retired professor of economics has his own detractors. He is seen as a divisive figure because of his views on a border-free Europe that should accommodated migrants, and because he quit the center-left Social Democrats and joined the Greens in the 1990s. Indeed, ahead of his victory in the May election, Van der Bellen, the child of a Russian father and an Estonian mother who had fled Stalin’s purges, pleaded with voters: “I ask all those who don’t like me but perhaps like Hofer even less to vote for me.”
Austrians will let the world know Sunday whom they dislike less.