Af­ter Trump, Aus­tria far-right eyes power

Anti-im­mi­gra­tion Hofer neck-and-neck with in­de­pen­dent

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

First Brexit. Then Trump. Now Aus­tria? The pop­ulist wave un­furl­ing in many coun­tries could claim a fresh vic­tory to­mor­row if Nor­bert Hofer is elected Europe’s first far-right pres­i­dent since 1945. Four weeks since Don­ald Trump’s stun­ning US elec­tion vic­tory and five months af­ter Bri­tons voted to leave the EU, polls put the anti-im­mi­gra­tion Hofer neck-and-neck with in­de­pen­dent ecol­o­gist Alexan­der Van der Bellen.

Aus­tria’s pres­i­dency is largely cer­e­mo­nial, but a win for Hofer would be a ma­jor prize for Europe’s anti-es­tab­lish­ment par­ties ahead of elec­tions next year in France, Ger­many and the Nether­lands. The vote takes place the same day as an Ital­ian ref­er­en­dum on con­sti­tu­tional re­forms that could spell the end of Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Renzi and re­newed po­lit­i­cal up­heaval in Europe’s fourth-big­gest econ­omy. It ends an 11-month cam­paign marathon that has been ugly by Aus­trian stan­dards.

Hofer posters were de­faced with Hitler mous­taches and Van der Bellen’s with dog ex­cre­ment. His se­cu­rity de­tail was beefed up af­ter death threats. Hofer, 45, came top in the first round on April 24, knock­ing out for the first time in the post-war pe­riod can­di­dates from the two cen­trist par­ties that have long dom­i­nated Aus­trian pol­i­tics. In a May 22 runoff, Hofer lost by just 31,000 votes to Van der Bellen. But Hofer’s Free­dom Party (FPOe) se­cured a re-run be­cause of pro­ce­dural errors. The re­match was then post­poned be­cause of faulty glue on postal votes.

‘Huge frus­tra­tion’

Hofer, echo­ing Trump, has stoked and prof­ited from a grow­ing sense of un­ease about glob­al­i­sa­tion and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, even though wealthy Aus­tria is one of the big­gest win­ners of Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion. De­spite mi­grant num­bers fall­ing sharply since 2015, the FPOe has man­aged to keep im­mi­gra­tion on vot­ers’ minds by play­ing on fears of ter­ror­ist at­tacks and of a par­al­lel Is­lamic so­ci­ety that sup­pos­edly re­jects Aus­trian “val­ues”. “There is huge frus­tra­tion,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Thomas Hofer (no re­la­tion) told AFP. Vot­ers are “flock­ing to pop­ulist move­ments and the easy an­swers that are of­fered by those par­ties.”

But Hofer also has struck a more mod­er­ate tone than FPOe chief HeinzChris­tian Stra­che, who called Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel “the most dan­ger­ous woman in Europe” and has warned of “civil war”. With his ready smile, mod­er­ate tone and the slo­gan “un­spoilt, hon­est, good”, Hofer won over many cen­trist vot­ers who in pre­vi­ous years would never have sup­ported the FPOe, a party long ac­cused of hav­ing ties to neo-Nazis. But at times he has vis­i­bly lost his cool and be­hind the grin Hofer is a steely key ide­o­logue within his party.

Is­lam, he has said, “has no place in Aus­tria” and is a re­li­gion “that sees the whole world as a bat­tle­ground”. And Van der Bellen, his op­po­nent, is a “com­mu­nist” and a “green dic­ta­tor”. “My wife, who goes to church ev­ery Sun­day, says that she would vote for Hofer if it wasn’t for all the peo­ple be­hind him in the FPOe,” Werner, a pen­sioner walk­ing his black-and-white dog in Vi­enna, told AFP.

‘You’ll be amazed’

Van der Bellen, 72, a some­what scruffy eco­nomics pro­fes­sor, has at times made it eas­ier for Hofer by com­ing across as too left-wing, wooden and old. His main strat­egy has been sim­ply that he is not Hofer. What a Hofer vic­tory might mean is un­clear. Hith­erto un­used pres­i­den­tial pow­ers could, in the­ory, al­low him to fire Chan­cel­lor Chris­tian Kern’s gov­ern­ment.

“You’ll be amazed by what’s pos­si­ble,” Hofer said be­fore the first round, a com­ment made much of by Van der Bellen and which Hofer says he re­grets hav­ing ut­tered. More re­al­is­ti­cally, though, his vic­tory could prompt Kern and the cen­tre-right to pull the plug on their un­happy coali­tion and call early elec­tions. And lead­ing the polls right now is the FPOe. Hofer’s elec­tion run “is only one part of a long­stand­ing ef­fort to make an FPOe-led gov­ern­ment, with real ex­ec­u­tive power, achiev­able by the next par­lia­men­tary elec­tion,” said Charles Lich­field from the Eura­sia think-tank.


VI­ENNA: Nor­bert Hofer, pres­i­den­tial can­di­date of Aus­tria’s right-wing Free­dom Party, FPOE, gives a speech dur­ing the FPOE’s last elec­tion cam­paign rally.

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