Austrian presidential vote hints at swing against Trump effect

Rejection of far-right candidate suggests European wariness of populist forces

Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen (centre) celebrating his victory over his far-right rival with his supporters at a post-election event in Vienna on Sunday.
Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen (centre) celebrating his victory over his far-right rival with his supporters at a post-election event in Vienna on Sunday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

VIENNA • Austria is too small a sample from which to tell if the populist tide is abating, with Europe still faces pivotal elections next year in France and Germany, as well as the possibility of a snap election in Italy.

Those races will define politics in the European Union for the remainder of the decade.

However, the surprise outcome of Sunday's presidential election in Austria does seem to disprove the idea that US President-elect Donald Trump's victory in the United States accelerated a broader public acceptance of populist, anti-establishment forces.

In rejecting a far-right candidate for president, voters in Austria showed the limitations of Mr Trump's tailwinds on a continent where extremist politics has traditionally brought cataclysm.

Call it the other Trump effect, one that may sow caution among some European voters suspicious of the advances of populist politicians.

Populist forces have unsettled politics in both Europe and the US, frequently by using fake news and fanning fears of globalisation and migration. The British vote to leave the EU this year was complicated by such anxieties.

But the choice before Austrians was perhaps the starkest.

A bitter year-long campaign for the presidency pitted Mr Norbert Hofer, a leader of the far-right Freedom Party, founded in the 1950s by former Nazis, against a mild-mannered 72-year-old former Green Party leader, Mr Alexander Van der Bellen.

This was a zero-sum political choice, and Mr Van der Bellen's decisive victory - by 6.6 percentage points with 99 per cent of votes counted - left his supporters predictably jubilant, if surprised.

In recent days, they had seemed resigned to fearing that Mr Trump's victory, in particular, was tilting the outcome here against them.

Mr Hofer himself said in an interview last month that the US election had bolstered support for his Freedom Party.

Yet it was not the case.

"People followed Trump with curiosity, shock, fear, jubilation, but I don't think they drew any conclusions," Mr Johannes Hubner, a Freedom Party parliamentary deputy, said on Sunday night. "It's like a Hollywood movie."

"It is unbelievable," said Mr Wolfgang Petritsch, a veteran diplomat and a biographer of former Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky and chairman of Austria's Marshall Plan foundation. "Austria saves the world!" he said with a twist of irony.

For the most part, Hofer supporters were hard to find at party headquarters on Sunday night. But on the Internet, where the party has an immense presence, the anger was palpable: "I am just appalled and shocked!" said Ms Regina Sassmann, one of almost 700 people to react. "Austria has voted for its own downfall! Well done!"

"I am really thinking about leaving this country for good," bemoaned Mr Manfred Stadler. "I can predict that pretty soon we will be betrayed by the EU and overrun by radical refugees."

But most Austrians are simply glad to put behind them the comedy of errors that meant an election for a largely ceremonial post dragged on for almost a year, prompting some media to label the country a "banana republic".

The election was a rerun of a May vote won by Mr Van der Bellen, but which was overturned due to counting irregularities.

In theory he looked likely to win again, but a lot has happened since May to boost the confidence of populists like his rival, Mr Hofer.

Said Mr Pietrisch: "Today I was totally surprised because after Trump and Brexit, I was really not sure what this meant for Austria...

"I was hugely surprised and my confidence, which was rather low in the past couple of days, went up - skyrocketed."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2016, with the headline Austrian presidential vote hints at swing against Trump effect. Subscribe