Austria, Italy elections - mixed bags of emotions for populists
Europe’s populists greeted with glee yesterday the demise of Italy’s premier but their enthusiasm was tempered by the failure of Austria’s Norbert Hofer to become the EU’s first far-right president. Topping off a 2016 that saw the shock election of Donald Trump as US president and Britain’s decision to leave the EU, Matteo Renzi quit Sunday after a crushing referendum defeat.
“My experience of government finishes here,” Renzi told a press conference. Many mainstream politicians were uneasy about Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms, while Italians fed up with the economy saw the vote as a chance to ditch him. But it was also a clear victory for Italy’s xenophobic Northern League and the anti-establishment Five Star movement, whose leader Beppe Grillo hailed Trump’s win as a “massive screw you”.
Grillo, who supports a referendum on Italy leaving the euro-zone-and therefore potentially the EU-on Sunday demanded that elections be called “within a week”. Antiestablishment figures across Europe, both on the left and the right, hailed Renzi’s demise. The result “adds another people to the list of those wanting to turn their backs on Europe’s absurd policies (that are) plunging the continent into misery,” said Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, who is expected to make it into the runoff in France’s presidential election in May.
‘Our time is coming’
Brexit figurehead Nigel Farage tweeted that the “vote looks to me to be more about the Euro than constitutional change”. Farright Dutch MP Geert Wilders, topping polls ahead of national elections in March, tweeted “Congratulations Italia!” Centre-left German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that while Renzi “did the right thing”, his topping is “not a positive message to Europe at a difficult time”. Mainstream politicians reacted with relief to Austria’s eurosceptic Norbert Hofer failing to become the EU’s first far-right president. Hofer, like populists elsewhere, had stoked concerns about immigration and globalization, vowing to “get rid of the dusty establishment” and fight “Brussels centralizing power”. Experts said the winner, ex-Greens chief Alexander Van der Bellen, exploited Hofer’s ambivalent stance on Austria’s EU membership in the wake of Brexit.
“Trump and Brexit had a reverse effect in Austria,” Carnegie scholar Stefan Lehne said. “The idea of Austria’s possible EU exit scared them and made them choose a candidate who is not from the establishment per se but mainstream and much more pro-European.” He said the election casts doubts on the “inevitability of the triumph of populism”. European Parliament president Martin Schulz tweeted that the result was a “heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism”. French President Francois Hollande said Austrians “chose Europe and open-mindedness”.
Impossible to deliver promises
But Hofer came close, winning 46.7 percent of the vote in the best ever national result for his Freedom Party (FPOe) after a bitter and polarizing 11-month race. Hofer called it a win for Austria’s “political system”. He said he would stand as an MP in the next elections and run again for the presidency-a largely ceremonial but highly coveted position-again in 2022. “Yesterday we wrote history!”, said Freedom Party leader HeinzChristian Strache, who has called German Chancellor Angela Merkel “the most dangerous woman in Europe” for her open-door refugees policy.
“2017 will be the Freedom Party’s year! Our time is coming!” he said on Facebook. Le Pen congratulated Hofer for “fighting bravely” and said the FPOe would win the next general elections, due in 2018 or perhaps sooner. Frauke Petry from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has won opposition seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 states ahead of federal elections in 2017, said the same. — AFP