Runoff vote in Austria

A close race is expected in the second round of Austria's presidential elections. Alexander Van der Bellen of the Greens will face the national-conservative Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer. Can the shift to the right be stopped?

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Der Standard (AT) /

Austria will also vote on Europe

The runoff vote in Austria's presidential elections on Sunday is also a vote on Austria's relations with Europe, the centre-left daily Der Standard believes:

“Just like at the end of the East-West division in 1989, the key political question for a small, export-oriented country at the heart of the continent is: what attitude should we take to Europe? Does Austria want to continue to belong to core Europe (together with Germany, Benelux and France), with open borders and the euro, in a liberal, market- and value-oriented Union? Or, like some EU partners and parties, does it want to seal itself off and retreat into more nationalism? Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer are diametrically opposed on this point. To that extent the vote really will decide what direction we take. But discussion of this crucial issue is too scant and too superficial.”

Sme (SK) /

Slovakia and Czechia as examples for guidance

Voters should take a look at their neighbours to the north-east before casting their ballots on Sunday, Sme advises:

“If the Austrians look across their border they have two examples to guide them. A warning in Czechia, where the election of Miloš Zeman [who has strengthened ties with Moscow and Beijing] has reversed the country's western outlook. Or as a positive counterexample, Slovakia. There [autocratic] Vladimír Mečiar's non-election in 1999 and 2004 prevented Slovakia from becoming Europe's black hole. Back then it was far more difficult for voters to cast their second-round ballots for [Mečiar's rivals] Rudolf Schuster and above all Ivan Gašparovič than it is for Austrian Social Democrats and conservatives to support Van der Bellen.”

Le Point (FR) /

FPÖ using Front National's strategy

The success of the FPÖ in the first round of Austria's presidential elections has to do with more than just the refugee crisis, Le Point comments:

“Norbert Hofer has made skilful use of the topic of migration. However to make a real breakthrough the FPÖ would have to become acceptable - or better: respectable. And to achieve that the Austrian far-right party has applied Marine Le Pen's strategy of 'de-demonisation' to the letter: firstly, an attractive, young, smiling and likeable candidate from a modest background who puts his wife and four children in the foreground and doesn't hide his handicap - the result of a paragliding accident; secondly, a ban on verbal lapses; and thirdly, a major clean up of the back rooms of the party, which until now had never denied its ties to the neo-Nazi scene.”

Novinar (BG) /

Hofer addresses key issues

Norbert Hofer is not afraid to address the issues that really interest the people, the daily Novinar points out:

“Just who should the Austrians have voted for? Someone who welcomes all refugees with open arms and explains to voters that he plans to use their tax money for refugee camps and benefits for migrants? Someone who couldn't care less whether mosques outnumber churches in his country? Such a candidate would be doomed from the start - not just in Austria but anywhere in Europe. These issues can no longer be swept under the carpet in election campaigns - and that's a good thing. Politicians must take a clear stand and can no longer act as if the refugee crisis didn't concern them. They can't simply hush up this sensitive topic and dedicate their election campaigns to unemployment or other issues from the good old days when all was well in Europe.”

Lidové noviny (CZ) /

FPÖ president would be just the start

The shift to the right in Austria won't stop if Norbert Hofer wins the runoff vote, Lidové noviny fears:

“It was usual in the past for the incumbent chancellor to formally tender his resignation to the new head of state, who then rejects it. Hofer, however, has indicated that he can imagine a better chancellor than Werner Faymann. The constitution allows Hofer to dismiss the chancellor. ... Then the question of when Hofer would name his party leader Heinz-Christian Strache as the new head of government would just be a matter of tactics. Will that be right after his election? Or will he wait until the current social-democratic-conservative coalition collapses on its own? If snap elections were held the clear favourite would be Hofer's FPÖ. Sunday's earthquake would then just be the first in a series.”

Spiegel Online (DE) /

Right-wing populists seize the web

The election victory of the FPÖ in Austria has much to do with its social media strategy, Spiegel Online columnist Sascha Lobo comments:

“Top politicians of the 20th century were greatly influenced by the mass media. In the meantime they've come to see that a reverse channel has opened on the Internet and social media. The problem is that they've done too little to take advantage of this channel, and too often failed to understand that it offers a chance for dialogue. ... It is extraordinarily sad that this has allowed the right-wing populists to misappropriate the feeling that one is taken seriously on the social media. The digital pedestrian zone is now determining the outcome of elections. And the winners in Austria are not the politicians with the best solutions or the most experience, but those with the most humane message. Unless you're a foreigner, that is.”

The Irish Times (IE) /

Hofer's success strengthens Le Pen and Wilders

The unexpected success of the FPÖ candidate will give new impetus to other far-right parties in Europe, The Irish Times comments:

“Hofer’s success is undoubtedly linked to his tough line on immigration - Austria saw 90,000 asylum requests last year, the second highest in Europe per capita. ... Although unlikely to win the presidential election as Austria’s liberal majority will certainly rally behind Van der Bellen, the poll trend suggests the FPÖ is almost certain to be in a position to enter coalition again after the 2018 general election. It would make it Europe’s most successful rightwing populist party. France’s Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch anti-EU, anti-Islam Freedom Party, will be rubbing their hands in glee.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Signal from Vienna symptomatic of all Europe

The traditional parties have failed to do their job and the right-wing FPÖ's electoral victory is symptomatic of the political situation in Europe, De Volkskrant observes:

“The governing coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP has been beaten. The reasons have to do with the situation in Austria, but also in Europe as a whole. ... Austrian voters are not the only ones to voice their dissatisfaction at the European political establishment's inability to get a grip on the refugee and economic crises. The established parties' raison d'être was to guarantee the survival and integration of various ethnic groups. As they have proved unable to fulfil this goal, the way has been paved for right- and left-wing populists.”

Finanz und Wirtschaft (CH) /

Direct democracy instead of career politicians

The shift to the right in Austria's presidential election shows how the mainstream parties have estranged themselves from the voters, writes the liberal business daily Finanz und Wirtschaft:

“The people feel that the career politicians either don't take it seriously or lie to them with the sole 'agenda' of staying in power. They realise that the same old team with the same hackneyed phrases isn't keeping up with the times. But with the exception of Spain's Ciudadanos the new parties, both on the left and right, aren't keeping up with the times either. And least of all those that mix nationalism with socialism, like Marine Le Pen's FN. If the run-down traditional parties are now replaced by amateurish ones all over Europe then it's curtains for representative democracy. What can help here is direct democracy. It disenfranchises the parties and eases their burden at the same time.”

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (DE) /

Take a close look at "populists"

It's no good simply writing off Austria's Freedom Party (FPÖ) as right-wing populist, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung warns:

“Surveys among Hofers' voters show that the party's slogans are striking a chord with the people (populus): most of them said the main reason they voted for him was that 'he understands the concerns of people like us'. But the term 'populism' implies the accusation that the party is making promises it can't keep or that would be detrimental to the public good. Yet parties like the SPÖ (social welfare state populism) or the ÖVP (interest group populism) could be accused of doing the very same thing. So we should stop the Nazi accusations and take a critical look at the FPÖ's concrete political plans and actions, just as we do with everyone else. There's plenty to criticise there, starting with the denigration of immigrants and its negative impact on integration as well as social welfare promises that are no less utopian than those of the SPÖ.”

Die Presse (AT) /

The end of an era

Both the People's Party and the Social Democrats lost out in the first round of the presidential election meaning that Freedom Party candidate Höfer will face Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent candidate endorsed by the Greens, in the run-off vote. Austria's main parties are facing the end of their long time in power, Die Presse comments:

“When the traditional parties don't understand that supporters of the right-wing populists on the one hand and young, eco-friendly voters on the other are demanding - and pushing through - sweeping changes of style and policy, it means that we are witnessing the last months of an era. What comes next is anyone's guess, but an interregnum is never a laughing matter. Possible are developments such as those in Hungary and Poland, as well as new populist trends rising from the ashes of the traditional parties. Or there will be a series of elections like in Italy some years ago. Or experiments such as those in Denmark and other creative democracies. But political life as we knew it is now a thing of the past. We just have to face that fact.”

Magyar Nemzet (HU) /

Ruling parties with ivory-tower candidates

The election was a devastating defeat for the ruling SPÖ und ÖVP parties not least because of their choice of candidates, Péter Techet, a columnist for Magyar Nemzet comments with irony:

“The two ruling parties ran for election with extremely weak candidates: the trade union representative for public employees in subsidised housing, also referred to as 'senior caretaker' Rudolf Hundstorfer, and the president of the pensioners' association Andreas Khol. Both candidates are caricatures of the pitiful state of their parties. Hundstorfer has been active in the musty old trade union movement since the age of fifteen. Khol is the representative of a Catholic community so out of touch with reality that he was surprised that his pension of 8,000 euros wasn't the average for Austria.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

Don't copy the right-wing populists

After their disastrous results in the presidential election Austria's two ruling parties should try their hand with objective and practicable politics instead of populism, the liberal Neue Zürcher Zeitung writes:

“Election day has shown that it would be wrong to adopt watered-down versions of the FPÖ's formulas. The refugee crisis may have been the issue that most helped the right-wing populists in this election, but the coalition's taking a hard line in this area didn't help its candidates. The Austrians' anger didn't just manifest itself in support for the FPÖ; the two moderate candidates Alexander Van der Bellen and Irmgard Griss secured 40 percent of the vote between them. Both ran for election with rather harsh and decidedly non-populist platforms and presented nuanced arguments. This testifies to the maturity of an electorate that wants change and won't succumb to the charms of pseudo-solutions. The government should see this fiasco as a mandate to pursue a more honest and solution-oriented policy.”

La Stampa (IT) /

A defeat for Europe

The results in Austria only confirm the anti-European tendencies that are taking hold in all EU member states, laments La Stampa:

“In Austria the spectre that has been haunting Europe for years is taking concrete shape: the victory of anti-systemic forces that stretches from France to Germany and Italy all the way to Britain. … This victory is less a sign that a logical alternative for what Europe has created is emerging and more the symbol of a movement that embodies the diminishing support for that ideal. … An ideal that has been the driving force behind our continent's trajectory since the end of the Second World War. The traditional parties have failed to counter the unprecedented refugee crisis with either a humanitarian social policy or a political narrative that conformed with the EU's values and at the same time provided an answer to voters' unease and legitimate fears.”

More opinions

Le Courrier (CH) / 26 April 2016
  Success of far right not a new phenomenon (in French)