Trump, Clin­ton clash echoes at Europe polls

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY ALEXEI KOROLYOV

VI­ENNA | In one of the first elec­toral tests on the con­ti­nent since the Brexit and Trump po­lit­i­cal earth­quakes, Aus­tri­ans are slated to go to the polls Sun­day — for the last time, they hope — in a re­run of a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that pits a far-right pop­ulist against a left-wing in­de­pen­dent.

Re­gard­less of who wins, the pres­i­dent-elect for the first time will not come from ei­ther of the coun­try’s two main cen­trist par­ties that have dom­i­nated the tiny Alpine na­tion’s pol­i­tics since the end of World War II, sug­gest­ing that Aus­trian vot­ers — like their Amer­i­can and Bri­tish coun­ter­parts — are sick of their tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal elites and ready for some­thing rad­i­cally new.

The face­off is be­tween Nor­bert Hofer, 45, of the eu­roskep­tic, anti-im­mi­gra­tion Free­dom Party founded by for­mer Nazis in 1955 and Alexan­der Van der Bellen, 72, a soft-spo­ken eco­nomics

pro­fes­sor and for­mer Green Party chair­man whose can­di­dacy is not af­fil­i­ated with the party.

De­spite the wide dis­par­ity in the can­di­dates’ views, polls sug­gest the elec­tion is too close to pre­dict, re­flect­ing a con­flicted elec­torate as well as wide­spread po­lit­i­cal dis­il­lu­sion.

He hasn’t ex­actly promised to make Austria great again, but Mr. Hofer has run on many of the is­sues in Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign: a dis­trust of elites and eco­nomic glob­al­iza­tion, the need to con­trol bor­ders and tighten im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies and the threat to na­tional iden­tity, es­pe­cially from the grow­ing ranks of Mus­lim im­mi­grants.

Mr. Hofer’s pro­pos­als are sim­i­lar to those floated by other pop­ulists around the world. But it’s a toss-up as to how Bri­tain’s de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union in June and Mr. Trump’s win across the At­lantic will al­ter Sun­day’s vote, said Aus­trian po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Ste­fan Sengl.

“It is clear that Hofer vot­ers feel em­bold­ened,” he said. “But on the other hand, a lot of Van der Bellen vot­ers learned their les­son from the U.S. elec­tion, so it is hard to say who is mo­ti­vated more by Trump’s win.”

If Mr. Hofer is vic­to­ri­ous, a far-right head of state would pre­side over a Euro­pean coun­try for the first time since the de­feat of Nazism. Mr. Hofer couldn’t en­act rad­i­cal re­forms be­cause Austria’s pres­i­dency is largely cer­e­mo­nial, but the post still wields some far-reach­ing pow­ers, in­clud­ing the right to dis­solve par­lia­ment and fire the chan­cel­lor and the Cabi­net.

The vote could prove an ap­pe­tizer for a mo­men­tous 2017, when both Ger­many and France will be hold­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

Many are al­ready not­ing par­al­lels with the U.S. pres­i­den­tial race, in which Mr. Trump’s pop­ulist re­volt against Wash­ing­ton elites tri­umphed even though polls showed him trail­ing go­ing into the elec­tion. As in the U.S., voter en­thu­si­asm ap­pears to be clearly on the side of the anti-es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date.

“As in the USA, one vot­ing bloc — those sup­port­ing Hofer — are very emo­tion­al­ized and know ex­actly why they are vot­ing for him,” Salzburg Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Rein­hard Heinisch told the Ger­man news ser­vice Deutsche Welle. “On the other hand, many of those vot­ing for van der Bellen are just vot­ing against Hofer.”

Some vot­ers say they are wary of a Hofer pres­i­dency.

“I voted and will vote again for Van der Bellen be­cause for me he is the only al­ter­na­tive,” said Alexan­der Forstner, a mu­si­cian from Austria’s sec­ond-largest city of Graz. “The com­plex na­tional and global chal­lenges we are fac­ing will not be solved with over­sim­pli­fied an­swers and ac­cu­sa­tions to­ward dif­fer­ent mi­nori­ties.”

Trou­bled vote

The elec­tion marks the third time Aus­tri­ans have gone to the polls since April, when Mr. Hofer won 35 per­cent of the vote in the first round of vot­ing and Mr. Van der Bellen came in sec­ond, an up­set that knocked the coun­try’s two his­tor­i­cally dom­i­nant par­ties, the center-left So­cial Democrats and the main­stream con­ser­va­tive Aus­trian Peo­ple’s Party, out of con­sid­er­a­tion. In the runoff a month later, Mr. Van der Bellen won by a ra­zor-thin mar­gin.

But Mr. Hofer filed com­plaints al­leg­ing that some postal votes were mis­han­dled, a chal­lenge that led the coun­try’s high­est court to over­turn the vote. A re­run was set for Oct. 2, but then red-faced elec­tion of­fi­cials an­nounced they wouldn’t be able to hold the vote be­cause of in­suf­fi­ciently sticky ad­he­sive strips on ab­sen­tee bal­lots, mak­ing them sus­cep­ti­ble to tam­per­ing. The elec­tion was even­tu­ally sched­uled for Dec. 4.

The situation was so un­prece­dented that par­lia­ment had to pass special leg­is­la­tion to al­low for the de­lay, which many viewed as a farce that de­graded democ­racy.

The chaos em­bold­ened sup­port­ers of Mr. Hofer, whose can­di­dacy was rid­ing high on wide­spread dis­sat­is­fac­tion over a refugee cri­sis. More than 1 mil­lion Syr­i­ans, North Africans and others flee­ing war and poverty have flooded into Europe in the past two years.

“The pres­i­dent should be there for his own peo­ple. We can take in peo­ple, but there should be an end to this at some point,” said Har­ald Hu­ber, a Hofer sup­porter in Vi­enna.

Some 90,000 refugees ap­plied for asy­lum in Austria last year, the sec­ond­high­est in the Euro­pean Union on a per capita ba­sis. The in­flux has strained so­cial ser­vices, sparked se­cu­rity fears and trig­gered a xeno­pho­bic back­lash. A re­cent sur­vey found that the num­ber of at­tacks on Aus­trian refugee cen­ters was pro­jected to dou­ble this year.

“I can un­der­stand peo­ple right now. They want to be taken se­ri­ously with all their fears,” said Vi­enna-based videog­ra­pher Christo­pher Herndler. “These fears come mostly from mis­in­for­ma­tion and false­hoods in the me­dia that dis­play the refugee cri­sis in the wrong light. But if Van der Bellen fails to ad­dress these fears, Hofer will win.”

Mr. Hofer has said Is­lam is in­com­pat­i­ble with Austria and has de­scribed the Euro­pean Union’s open-door pol­icy to­ward refugees as a ma­jor mis­take. He has promised to strive to im­prove re­la­tions with Russia and to push for an Aus­trian exit from the Euro­pean Union — an “Oxit,” in ref­er­ence to “Oster­re­ich,” the name of the coun­try in Ger­man — if the bloc starts con­sol­i­dat­ing more power in Brus­sels and if Tur­key gains mem­ber­ship.

“Is­lam is not a part of Austria,” Mr. Hofer said this week at a con­fer­ence on anti-Semitism that fea­tured Rafael Ei­tan, 90, the Israeli Nazi hunter who brought Adolf Eich­mann to jus­tice. “By the year 2050, 50 per­cent of the chil­dren in Austria younger than 12 will be Mus­lims. The kind of pol­i­tics that is per­mit­ting a chang­ing face of Austria and Europe has to be op­posed.”

Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has made it eas­ier for sup­port­ers on both sides to de­mo­nize each other, said Mr. Sengl. The more con­fronta­tional cli­mate ben­e­fits crit­ics of main­stream par­ties, he said.

“One thing that it has done is lower the level of po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. Peo­ple are now say­ing, ‘If this is what the pres­i­den­t­elect of the United States can say and do, then these sorts of state­ments and poli­cies are ac­cept­able,’ ” Mr. Sengl said. “In the midterm, Trump’s win will mo­ti­vate pop­ulist par­ties across Europe.”

Mr. Van der Bellen has warned that elect­ing Mr. Hofer would add mo­men­tum to the grow­ing cho­rus of right-wing politi­cians on the con­ti­nent seek­ing to dis­man­tle the Euro­pean Union.

“The Aus­trian Free­dom Party has been toy­ing with Austria’s exit for 20 years,” he said dur­ing a tele­vised pres­i­den­tial de­bate against Mr. Hofer on Tues­day. “Many politi­cians in Europe are wor­ried that the mere spec­u­la­tion about Oxit could trig­ger an avalanche of right-wing pop­ulism. The most im­por­tant thing is the sol­i­dar­ity be­tween [EU] mem­ber states. Oth­er­wise, we won’t be able to as­sert our­selves in the face of Russia or the United States.”


Alexan­der Van der Bellen (left), a for­mer Green Party chair­man, and Nor­bert Hofer, of the anti-im­mi­gra­tion Free­dom Party, are giv­ing Aus­trian vot­ers a stark choice in the sec­ond round of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion sched­uled for Sun­day.

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