Austria Votes

The Other Election

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Austrian Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer could become the first far-right president of a western European nation in the post-war period.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Austria will go to the polls on December 4 to vote for their president. It marks a re-run after a run-off election held back in May was voided by the courts.
    • Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party is neck-and-neck in the polls with former Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen, who narrowly won May’s election.
    • The Austrian president is a largely ceremonial post, but the Freedom Party is pushing to expand its powers.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Norbert Hofer, Alexander Van der Bellen
Former Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen (left) is in a neck-and-neck race for the Austrian presidency with far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer. Source: AP

Hans Peter Haselsteiner never tires of combating the seemingly never-ending federal presidential election campaign of Austrian right-wing populist Norbert Hofer.

The founder of the construction company Strabag in an interview warned of “economic suicide” if the controversial politician from the Freedom Party, also known by its acronym FPÖ, is elected Austrian head of state next Sunday.

While the president is a largely ceremonial post in Austria, a parliamentary democracy, a win by Mr. Hofer would carry a heavy amount of symbolism for this small Alpine nation of some 8 million people, located in the heart of Europe and – in the past year – at the heart of its refugee crisis.

“Norbert Hofer is dangerous,” said Strabag Chief Executive Mr. Haselsteiner. “Normalizing extreme right policy could lead to a dangerous shift in Austria. It could wash away everything that makes our country a democracy.”

But the business coalition against the far-right may well come to nothing, as was the case with Britain’s E.U. referendum and Donald Trump’s election in the United States. Mr. Hofer has a very good chance of becoming the first right-wing populist at the head of a western European country in Sunday’s poll.

Mr. Van der Bellen already has one victory under his belt in what has been an utterly bizarre Austrian election cycle.

It is Mr. Hofer’s zigzagging opinion on whether Austria should leave the 28-nation European Union that entrepreneurs like Mr. Haselsteiner fear above all. There’s even a Brexit-like acronym for Mr. Hofer’s musings: The possibility of Austria following Britain out the E.U. door is popularly referred to in the country as Öxit, formed from the German Österreich and exit, or Auxit in English.

Mr. Haselsteiner is hardly alone in his anti-Hofer campaign. He’s enlisted the support of respected public figures in Austria like Brigitte Ederer, a former Siemens manager, and Franz Fischler, a former E.U. commissioner.

Markets are concerned. Together with Italy’s constitutional referendum, which is also set for Sunday, European stocks have taken a dive leading into the weekend. Germany’s DAX was down more than 1 percent in afternoon trading Friday.

While the Freedom Party is unlikely to push for an immediate exit from the euro zone or European Union, “Norbert Hofer’s election to the Austrian presidency would be a further reminder that the cohesion of the euro zone is more at risk from the core than the periphery,” Ralph Solveen, a senior economist with Germany’s Commerzbank, said in a research note.

Like Britain before it, much of the rise of the Freedom Party is attributable to a reaction against the powers of Brussels and, more broadly, against globalization. Austria’s economy has been on a roller-coaster ride since the 2008 financial crisis, with unemployment falling to the lowest level in the euro zone before creeping up again in the past couple of years. There are once again signs of stronger growth, but there’s likely to be a lag before consumers feel those positive effects, according to Mr. Solveen.

Standing in the Freedom Party’s way is an economics professor and former Green Party leader, the 72-year-old Alexander van der Bellen. The hopes of much of Austria’s political and business establishment rest with him. Yet it appears increasingly uncertain whether the publicity campaign against Mr. Hofer, costing millions of euros, will achieve its objective.

Mr. Van der Bellen already has one victory under his belt in what has been an utterly bizarre Austrian election cycle. Indeed on December 4, Austrians will be making a third bid to elect their new head of state.

A first ballot in April saw the field whittled down to Mr. Hofer and Mr. van der Bellen. It marked the first time in Austria’s post-war history that a representative of Austria’s two centrist parties – the Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party – didn’t make the cut.

A second ballot in May was won by Mr. Van der Bellen with a minuscule lead of around 31,000 votes. Mr. Hofer’s Freedom Party challenged the result and, in a surprising move, Austria’s constitutional court declared the election invalid due to negligence in postal vote procedures. Another run-off was first scheduled for early October, but then delayed due to a problem with the glue on absentee ballots.

This Sunday, 6.4 million Austrians aged 16 and above will vote once again to elect their new head of state.

“It‘s looking very, very good.”

Norbert Hofer, Presidential candidtae, Freedom Party

Mr. Hofer, a former aircraft technician from Burgenland in the eastern part of Austria is confident of victory this time around.

“It‘s looking very, very good,” the right-wing populist, told the conservative tabloid newspaper “Österreich” this week. The influential publisher of the tabloid, Wolfgang Fellner, echoed that forecast: “The mood is for Hofer. It is 70 to 30 in his favor.”

The pollsters are undecided. The candidates are neck-and-neck, just as they were in the run-up to May’s run-off. Whereas Gallup recently saw the Freedom Party out in front with 52 percent, Unique Research gave the chief right-wing ideologist only 49 percent. But then many observers around the world have lost faith in the polls since the election of Donald Trump and Brexit. And even May’s election in Austria didn’t turn out as expected – Mr. Hofer had been leading in the election-day polls before narrowly losing.

It’s true that Austria‘s federal president has far less power than presidents in France or the United States. The country is run instead by Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat, who came to power earlier this year. But presidents here aren’t completely powerless, either. They have more clout than their counterpart in Germany, for example.

Among the chief responsibilities: the Austrian president has to approve the chancellor and cabinet. The head-of-state can refuse to accept a new government, if he or she wants, and similarly has to approve any changes to the cabinet or chancellor during a governmental term. The president is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, though Austria is neutral.

And Mr. Hofer’s party also wants those powers expanded. “The Freedom Party has already started a debate over whether Austria should be represented at E.U. summits by its president in the future, rather than by the chancellor as at present,” said Mr. Solveen of Commerzbank.

Nobody in Vienna is expecting a quick result from the election on December 4. The Austrian Interior Ministry wants to avoid another embarrassment in the election count at all cost. Authorities are cautioning therefore that the final result of the neck-and-neck race may not be available until Tuesday.

Austria is divided like never before. It’s been a nasty election, on a par with the fight between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the United States.

All the mudslinging has had an even greater polarizing effect. Last weekend, there was a demonstration in Vienna with Hofer opponents carrying banners like “Keep the refugees, drive out the FPÖ.”

Privately, political insiders are expecting protests all over the country in the case of a Hofer victory.

Mr. Hofer has been rather charming in his appearances during the election campaign. The politician, who walks with a limp because of a sporting accident, has struggled to present himself as the antithesis of a right-wing populist.

“I am a completely normal guy from Burgenland with dreams and aspirations who wants to be elected,” Mr. Hofer told the tabloid newspaper “Österreich” with disarming modesty.

In terms of content, however, the political hardliner is taking a single-minded xenophobic course that is critical of Europe. Germany can expect a difficult relationship. Mr. Hofer is no admirer of either Angela Merkel or her federal government and is not in favor of a close partnership with Berlin.

“We haven’t taken orders from Germany for a long time,” the FPÖ politician said.

The bigger concern may come in 2017. Parliamentary elections have to be held by October 2018. If Mr. Hofer wins on Sunday, it is expected in government circles that new elections could be called for the first half of 2017. Chancellor Kern, who is doing his best to restore trust in Austria’s established parties, has suggested he’s willing to form a coalition with the Freedom Party.

He may not have a choice: The Freedom Party, led by Karl-Heinz Strache, is leading the parliamentary polls, too.

 

Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent for central and eastern Europe and is based in Vienna. Christopher Cermak is an Austrian citizen and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the authors: siebenhaar@handelsblatt.com and cermak@handelsblatt.com

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