Aus­tria, Italy elec­tions - mixed bags of emo­tions for pop­ulists

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

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

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