A huge sigh of relief heard from Europe’s centrist parties, Brussels and Washington
By Pam Barker | TLB staff writer
The second round of the Austrian presidential elections took place yesterday – Sunday, but as of today until just a few hours ago, the results were still too close to call between the far-right anti-EU, anti-immigration Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer and pro-EU Green party leader Alexander van der Bellen. Bellen finally won by 50.3% to Hofer’s 49.7%, signalling the narrowest of wins.
Norbert Hofer, leader of the Freedom Party
According to Reuters, ‘the provisional result from the Interior Ministry, which did not include postal ballots, showed Freedom Party Hofer ahead with 51.9 percent to van der Bellen’s 48.1 percent’ as of yesterday. Postal votes counted today were expected to account for up to 12% of the country’s 6.4 million eligible voters.
Reuters notes two reasons for the surprise of this election, which saw yesterday’s neck-and-neck results for the Green and Freedom Party candidates: the first is that Austria is a relatively prosperous country with low unemployment, which has produced a political landscape since WWII dominated by two centrist parties – the Social Democratic Party of Austria and the Austrian People’s Party. This election represents a move to the political margins.
Presidential winner, Alexandra van der Bellen of the Green Party
Second, it would signal a move to the populist parties, particularly on the right seen elsewhere in countries such as France with the increasing popularity of the Front National under Marine le Pen. Of course, far-right candidate Hofer did not win ultimately, but the success of his party at 49.7% of the vote still indicates strong dissatisfaction with the migrant situation and the European Union.
But this is perhaps less surprising in Austria, which has already responded decisively and conservatively to the ongoing migrant crisis.
Last month it announced legislation which would implement tough new controls, the toughest in Europe, against the influx of migrants, including stricter annual quotas, the option to turn immigrants away at the borders, and the construction of a 370-meter-long fence at the Brenner Pass, a key crossing point between Austria and Italy to the south. This to the annoyance of Italy and the EU.
One can imagine the relief from Brussels and Washington at this result coming as it does ahead of the Brexit vote in the UK on June 23. Indeed, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in a Twitter post: “It’s a relief to see the Austrians reject populism and extremism. Everyone in Europe must draw lessons from this.” At 49.7% of the vote, this can hardly be said to constitute a rejection.
About the author
Pam Barker is a TLB staff writer/analyst based in France. She has an extensive background in the educational systems of several countries at the college and university level as a teacher and administrator.