Austrian Elections

Green Victory Holds Off Far-Right Advance

VanderBellen-Reuters
Alexander Van der Bellen, former Green Party leader, has been elected Austria's new president, defeating far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in a nail-biting poll.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Austria’s election marks the closest the far-right has come to taking to power in a western European nation and heralds deep distrust in the establishment.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old economics professor, won 50.3 percent of the vote to become the first Austrian president backed by the Green Party.
    • Norbert Hofer, the right-wing Freedom Party’s candidate, garnered 49.7 percent, losing by just 30,000 votes.
    • The run-off election, which was held Sunday, marked the first without a candidate from Austria’s main centrist parties, the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) or the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).
  • Audio

    Audio

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Whatever happened, Austria was going to make history this week.

In the country’s closest-ever national election, a former Green Party leader on Monday was declared the winner of Sunday’s run-off vote for Austrian president, defeating a resurgent far-right candidate by just 30,000 votes.

The nail-biting result spares this central European Alpine nation of 8 million the distinction of becoming the first western European nation in the post-war period to elect a far-right leader as head of state.

The result is nevertheless historic: Alexander Van der Bellen will become the first-ever Green Party-backed candidate elected to the largely ceremonial post of Austrian president. He will also become the only Green head of state in Europe.

A 72-year-old economics professor who led the Green Party for more than 10 years, Mr. Van der Bellen ran as an independent in this month’s presidential election, though he was supported by his erstwhile party.

That shade of independence may help Mr. Van der Bellen with the tough task of uniting a sharply divided country over the coming months and years. The former Green party leader announced during a victory speech Monday night that he was immediately giving up his party affiliation.

“I will represent Austria globally and also look for common ground at home. I will be an above-party president, for all the people of this country,” said Mr. Van der Bellen, who will formally begin his six-year term as president on July 8.

Amid a wave of right-wing resurgence in Europe, Austria’s election was looked upon globally as a bellwether for whether the far-right, which has grown in the wake of Europe’s refugee crisis, can come to power in a Western nation.

Norbert Hofer, candidate of the Freedom Party, the FPÖ, had profited in recent months from public anger over the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees at Austria’s borders, as well as deep frustrations with Austria’s two centrist parties that have governed the country for most of its post-war history.

“I will represent Austria globally and also look for common ground at home. I will be an above-party president, for all the people of this country.”

Alexander Van der Bellen, Austrian president-elect

The election, which was held on Sunday, garnered tremendous interest and highlighted deep divisions within Austria. About 4.6 million votes were cast overall, marking 72.7 percent of eligible voters, far more than the 53.6 percent that voted in 2010.

The final result: 50.3 percent for Mr. Van der Bellen and 49.7 percent for Mr. Hofer. Just 31,026 votes separated the two candidates.

Mr. Hofer conceded defeat in a Facebook post Monday afternoon, thanking supporters and promising to continue doing his part “for a positive Austrian future.”

While the 45-year-old may have just missed out on the top post, it still marks the best result in FPÖ history in a national election and heralds the return of a party that has a long history of shaking up Austrian politics.

Long led by the late Jörg Haider, the FPÖ last joined an Austrian government in the late 1990s, becoming the junior partner in a coalition with the conservative People’s Party, prompting the European Union to impose diplomatic sanctions on Austria.

Regardless of Monday’s defeat, it seems the FPÖ is on the verge of playing a central role in Austrian politics once again.

“The path that we have taken in the last 11 years cannot be taken from us by anyone. We have already ushered in a turning point,” Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Freedom Party, said in a statement on Facebook, nevertheless conceding defeat in the presidential run-off.

Indeed the FPÖ is currently leading in opinion polls for parliamentary elections that are likely to take place in the coming two years, garnering about a third of the vote in recent polls.

The presidential election highlighted a deep dissatisfaction with the political elite. Mr. Van der Bellen’s election marks the first time in Austria’s post-war history that its president will not be a member of the country’s left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) or the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).

“The path that we have taken in the last 11 years cannot be taken from us by anyone. We have already ushered in a turning point.”

Heinz-Christian Strache, Freedom Party head

The run-off between Mr. Van der Bellen and Mr. Hofer also marked the first in the post-war period to not feature a presidential candidate from either the center-left SPÖ or the center-right ÖVP.

Earlier this month, Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann of the Social Democrats, resigned following the embarrassing first-round result for his party in April.

Christian Kern, a businessman and head of Austria’s railway operator ÖBB, was inaugurated as the country’s new chancellor last week, promising reforms that he hopes will stave off an even more embarrassing defeat for his party in the next parliamentary elections.

While the position of president is largely ceremonial in Austria, Mr. Van der Bellen could nevertheless play a key role in the country’s future politics. That’s because the head of state has the power to name and dissolve the government, as well as call for new elections.

Should the FPÖ become Austria’s largest party in the next round of parliamentary elections, as polls currently predict, it will be up to Mr. Van der Bellen to decide whether he tasks the party with trying to form a government.

“The most important task for the new president will be to close the grave differences that have emerged… and ensure that the federal president can be a president for all Austrians,” the country’s outgoing president, Heinz Fischer, a member of the SPÖ, said in a brief public statement following the result.

With the world’s attention drawn on Austria ever since Sunday’s election, electoral authorities finally declared a winner to the nail-biting poll early Monday evening.

Mr. Van der Bellen had trailed after the close of polling on Sunday by around 144,000 votes, but pulled ahead of his rival on Monday after some 800,000 mail-in ballots were tallied.

“I may congratulate the newly elected federal president on his election,” Austria’s interior minister, Wolfgang Sobotka, a member of the ÖVP, said in announcing the results.

Austrian business groups were also relieved by the election result. Mr. Van der Bellen is known to be economically liberal and unlikely to get in the way of the new Austrian chancellor, Mr. Kern.

“Key will be for the new president through his actions and decisions to contribute to a renewed strengthening of trust and optimism in large parts of the society,” Georg Kapsch, president of the Austrian association of industry, said Monday night.

 

Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin, and an Austrian citizen. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar of Handelsblatt also contributed to this story. To contact the author: cermak@handelsblatt.com

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