Long, ugly Aus­trian elec­tion cam­paign draws to a close

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Aus­tria’s long and ugly pres­i­den­tial cam­paign drew to a close yes­ter­day, with a con­fi­dent far-right aim­ing to em­u­late Don­ald Trump and Brexit cam­paign­ers by deal­ing a ham­mer-blow to Vi­enna’s cen­trist es­tab­lish­ment. A vic­tory to­day for Nor­bert Hofer from the anti-im­mi­gra­tion and EU-crit­i­cal Free­dom Party (FPOe) would make him Europe’s first far-right elected pres­i­dent since 1945.

The Aus­trian pres­i­dency is largely cer­e­mo­nial but it would be an­other tri­umph for pop­ulist pol­i­tics a month since Don­ald Trump’s US elec­tion vic­tory and five months af­ter the Bri­tish chose to leave the Euro­pean Union. The elec­tion comes on the same day as a closely-watched ref­er­en­dum in Italy and ahead of elec­tions next year in France, Ger­many and the Nether­lands where anti-main­stream and anti-im­mi­gra­tion forces are fore­cast to do well too.

“That a far-right can­di­date for a party founded partly by Nazis and with a his­tory of anti-Semitism could be so close to power at the heart of Europe is self-ev­i­dently trou­bling,” a Fi­nan­cial Times edi­to­rial said this week. “But it should be a wake-up call to main­stream politi­cians rather than a cause for de­spair.”

One voter, Hel­wig Leibinger, told AFP at Hofer’s fi­nal rally in Vi­enna on Fri­day that “we hope that Hofer can en­sure that our borders re­main closed, that we have con­trols, that we have se­cu­rity”. “We want a com­man­der-in-chief of the armed forces who can give the right or­ders,” he said. “There are new par­ties rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent points of view on the rise... We want to be part of the EU but not to lose our iden­tity.” The FPOe is the “xeno­pho­bic face of Aus­tria,” Vi­enna’s cen­tre-left Mayor Michael Hae­upl. The coun­try doesn’t need some­one who will “bring shame on Aus­tria”.

‘Elec­tion of Hate’

Polls sug­gest that the con­test be­tween gun en­thu­si­ast and for­mer air­craft engi­neer Hofer, 45, and in­de­pen­dent Alexan­der Van der Bellen, 72, a for­mer head of the Greens and eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor, is too close to call. Hofer won the first round in April, knock­ing out can­di­dates from the cen­tre-right and cen­tre-left that have dom­i­nated na­tional pol­i­tics since World War II.

Van der Bellen won a May runoff by just 31,000 votes but the FPOe got the re­sult an­nulled due to ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties. This time there are 20 per­cent fewer postal votes, which might ben­e­fit Hofer, ex­perts say. The cam­paign, which has lasted 11 months in­clud­ing the first round in April, has be­come in­creas­ingly bit­ter. A fi­nal TV de­bate on Thurs­day saw Hofer call Van der Bellen a liar 24 times, vice versa three times.

Hofer posters have been de­faced with Hitler mous­taches, Van der Bellen’s with dog ex­cre­ment. Hofer has called his chal­lenger a “com­mu­nist” and a “fas­cist green dic­ta­tor”, while Van der Bellen has la­beled Hofer a “dem­a­gogue”. The Die Presse daily dubbed the fi­nal de­bate a “key scene in the screen­play of the slow decline of Aus­tria’s politi­cal cul­ture”. The Oester­re­ich tabloid’s front page head­line yes­ter­day was “Hass-Wahl” (“Elec­tion of Hate”).

Gov­ern­ment col­lapse?

Pop­ulist groups across Europe, on the right and the left, have ben­e­fit­ted from a grow­ing sense of un­ease about glob­al­i­sa­tion, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, grow­ing in­equal­ity and aus­ter­ity cuts. “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.”

What a Hofer vic­tory might mean is un­clear. He says he wants more ref­er­en­dums, in­clud­ing on con­tin­ued EU mem­ber­ship if Tur­key joins or if the bloc be­comes more cen­tral­ized. Hith­erto un­used pres­i­den­tial pow­ers could, in the­ory, al­low him to fire cen­tre-left 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? None other than the FPOe.


VI­ENNA: Alexan­der Van der Bellen ad­dresses his last elec­tion cam­paign rally.

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