Alexander Van der Bellen celebrates his victory in the Austrian presidential election.

Did My Fellow Austrians Just Stop the Surge of Far Right Populism in Europe?

On Sunday, Austria put a halt to the seemingly unstoppable surge of far right populism in Europe. Yes, Austria of all places.

Green Party-turned-independent candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, decisively won the presidential election against Norbert Hofer of the far right Freedom Party.

The votes by Austrians living abroad – like me – are still being counted, but they are expected to widen Van der Bellen’s lead. As of Monday, exit polls had him winning by almost 7%.

The result came as a big surprise to many, since virtually all Austrian polls predicted a much closer race and a narrow Hofer victory. To be honest, it felt like a turn around of the American election, just that it was a positive shock this time.

This shows that polls are not systematically underestimating the far right (as they did for Trump and Brexit), but that there is a general problem with polls.

Needless to say, leaders of the European Union were very happy.

“The whole of Europe has heaved a sigh of relief,” German foreign minister Frank Steinmeier said .

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called Van der Bellen’s victory “a breath of fresh air in times when Europe is threatened by the rise of the far right.”

Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, said that the Austrian election was “a heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism.”

Van der Bellen, an economics professor who was the Chairman of the Austrian Green Party for a decade, ran an outspoken pro-European campaign.

In a message sent to his supporters, Van der Bellen touched upon the transnational importance of his victory. “A red-white-red signal of hope is sent from Austria to the whole of Europe,” he said referencing Austria’s flag. “A red-white-red signal for constructive collaboration and positive change.”

Van der Bellen’s victory is a blow to the many right-wing populist movements in Europe, which were hoping to ride on the wave of a win by the Freedom Party. There are important elections coming up in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

The eurosceptic Freedom Party (FPÖ) was founded in 1956, largely by former Nazis. In 1999, they became part of the government for the first time, as the junior coalition partner of the Christian Conservative party. (Which resulted in large weekly demonstrations every Thursday for at least a year in Austria’s capital Vienna.)

During the refugee crisis, the FPÖ’s nativist populism attracted a lot of listeners - just as it did in many other parts of Europe.

In fact, the poll surge of the FPÖ led the Austrian government to stop following Germany in their pro-refugee policy. Instead they partly closed Austria’s borders to refugees and asylum seekers.

A majority of Austrians think their country is on the wrong track. The current government is a coalition between the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Christian Conservatives (ÖVP) and the candidates for these mainstream parties were eliminated in the first round of the presidential election. (A presidential candidate needs to win an absolute majority, that’s why in most cases there are runoff elections.)

The candidate for the Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, attracted many voters because he was a polite and soft spoked candidate, and didn’t appear as threatening as many other rightwing populists. But his anti-immigrant, fear mongering message stayed the same.

During the campaign, Hofer said “Islam has no place in Austria”

Traditionally, the Austrian president is a largely ceremonial figure, similar to a queen or king representing your country abroad. The government itself is run by a chancellor (like a prime minister.)

But technically the president is the most powerful person in the state, for example he is the only one who can declare war (not that that is very likely given that Austria is a neutral country).

And - as as me and many other Austrians found out during this election - the president has a lot of “secret” powers, like dismissing the chancellor and governing by executive power.

No Austrian president since 1945 has exercised this power, which explains why many Austrians though we had abolished them all together. But Hofer repeatedly suggested his willingness to use them, he told supporters that you “will be surprised about all the things that are possible.”

Van der Bellen’s victory shows that Austria was not willing to go this far and that populism can be stopped.

His most successful campaign video featured an octogenarian Holocaust survivor who warned that “it’s not the first time something like this has happened.”

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And Van der Bellen demonstrated a way how to win against far right populism - by standing up to bullies and taking a chance.

Many European mainstream politicians run on a light version of right wing politics, meant to not alienate angry voters.

Van der Bellen on the other hand, clearly stated that he stand for tolerance and acceptance, that he is pro European-Union and that Hofer’s anti-immigrant message is a threat to Austrian values.

It’s similar to German chancellor Angela Merkel vocally defending her pro-refugee policies. The same approach also worked for the mayor of Vienna, Michael Häupl. He was one of the few Austrian mayors who successfully defended his seat against the Freedom Party last year.

Häupl was also the only mayor who took a stance, publicly supporting pro-refugee policies and opening Vienna for refugees that weren’t welcome in other parts of Austria. In fact, Vienna took in more Syrian refugees than the entire United States.

During Sunday’s election, every single district in Vienna went to Van der Bellen.

The election results mark the end of a 10-month odyssey: Van der Bellen already won the election in May, but following a lawsuit by the Freedom Party, the courts overturned the election due to irregularities in counting absentee ballots.

A first attempt to repeat the election had to be stopped because of a problem with the glue of absentee ballots (No kidding! We call it “Gluegate”) but the third time brought the charm.

And Van der Bellen could expand his lead impressively compared to the initial election in May. Back then, Van der Bellen won by less than 31,000 votes ahead of Hofer. This time he won by about 300,000 votes.

This doesn’t mean that all is good now.

There is still the fact that about 46 percent of Austrians voted for Hofer. And a couple hours after Van der Bellen’s win, the Italian prime minister resigned, which might further destabilize the European Union.

But in a year that saw the success of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Austria just proved that standing up for open mindedness and progressive ideas can work. And that the raise of far right populism might not continue forever.

Lilly Maier is a news intern at the Forward. Reach her at maier@forward.com or on Twitter at @lillymmaier

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Author

Lilly Maier

Lilly Maier

Lilly Maier is a news intern at the Forward. She is a graduate journalism student at New York University, where she studies as a Fulbright scholar. She also holds a B.A. in Jewish history from the University of Munich.
Contact Lilly at maier@forward.com, read her portfolio, or follow her on Twitter.

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