Traditional parties set to lose Austrian presidency

Election campaign posters of Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party in Vienna on Tuesday. He is among three wild cards in the ballot tomorrow.
Election campaign posters of Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party in Vienna on Tuesday. He is among three wild cards in the ballot tomorrow.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

VIENNA • Austria's presidential ballot tomorrow is expected to highlight the decline in the country's two traditional parties, which for the first time since 1945 look unlikely to produce a winning candidate.

Although the role is mainly symbolic, the ballot is a key indicator of the parties' standing ahead of the general election in 2018.

"Like elsewhere in Europe, we are witnessing the downfall of the traditional parties," said political expert Peter Hajek. "They have failed to modernise over the past decade and attract new voters."

The "great coalition" between the Social Democratic Party (SPOe) and the conservative People's Party (OeVP) has dominated Austrian politics for most of the past 70 years.

But polls suggest that their candidates trail far behind in tomorrow's race. Voters are set to pick one of three wild cards: Mr Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party; former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen; or Ms Irmgard Griss, former president of the Supreme Court and the only woman in the contest.

In a tight race, Mr Van der Bellen is projected to get up to 26 per cent of the votes, Mr Hofer 24 per cent and Ms Griss around 21 per cent. A run-off vote will take place on May 22 if no one manages to obtain an absolute majority.

The chances are slim that it will include the SPOe's Mr Rudolf Hundstorfer or the OeVP's Mr Andreas Khol, stuck on 15 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively.

"In the past, the presidential election focused on personalities, but this year political issues have also come into play. Hundstorfer and Khol will have to pay for their parties' failings," said Ms Karin Cvrtila of the OGM polling institute.

In addition to being the army chief, the president can dismiss the government and reject a chancellor candidate. "The role is like that of a sleeping giant who has a lot more authority than people are aware of," said legal expert Manfried Welan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'Traditional parties set to lose Austrian presidency'. Print Edition | Subscribe