Yesterday was the conclusion of the re-running of the Austrian Presidential run-off between Independent candidate (and former Green Party leader) Alexander Van der Bellen, and Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party.
The run-off was originally held in May and the result was extremely close with Van der Bellen winning by just 0.7 percent. But then, in June, the result was annulled after allegations of voting irregularities. Yesterday was the re-run, with opinion polls prior to polling day suggesting that the result would be similarly close, with the far-right Hofer narrowly leading in much of the polling. This led to Nigel Farage boldly predicting that Hofer would be the next populist right-winger to win a major election.
However, ultimately this was wrong, with Van der Bellen winning, and by a considerably wider margin than his win in the original election in May. Although all of the votes are yet to be counted, projections suggest that Van der Bellen has won by roughly 53 percent to 46 percent, and Hofer has conceded defeat.
Many moderates were quick to rejoice, heralding the result as a ray of light in a year which has seen a vote for Brexit in the EU Referendum, the election of Donald Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton, the defeat of Matteo Renzi in Italy, and the continued rise of Marine Le Pen in France. However, this analysis glosses over the results somewhat.
Hofer is a genuine far-right politician. He has stated that Islam has ‘no place in Austria’, and has regularly referred to Islam and immigration as being an existential threat to Austrian identity. Hofer has also been strongly criticised by some for wearing the blue cornflower, which is an old Nazi symbol, which is often used to represent ideas of pan-Germanism. In addition, Hofer has long been a gun enthusiast, and has described carrying a gun as a ‘natural consequence’ of immigration. Despite pitching himself as a moderate outside member of the Freedom Party, Hofer has in fact worked his way up through the party’s ranks for many years, and was a close advisor to previous leaders who were even more overtly extreme.
Although Hofer lost, he received 46 percent of the vote. In 2000, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) received 18 percent of the vote in the French Presidential Election, and this was considered to be as popular as the far-right could get in Europe. However, now a far-right candidate has managed 46% of the vote, with Hofer’s share much, much higher in the countryside and the smaller towns — in much the same way as Donald Trump’s was during the US Presidential Election, although Hofer makes Trump look like a moderate.
Hofer’s loss is certainly pleasing for moderates in some regard. A Hofer win would have embolden far-right candidates throughout over European countries. The likes of Geert Wilders and the Dutch Party of Freedom, Matteo Salvini and the Italian Northern League, Frauke Petry and the Alternative for Germany, and Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Hofer’s loss will hopefully have stunted the momentum of these parties.
However, the fact that a far-right party managed to poll 46 percent in a European Presidential election should not be ignored. It should serve to further highlight to deep disconnect that many voters in Europe (and around the world) feel with the political establishment, and the establishment should be working overtime in order to correct this, before it’s too late.