The outcome of Austria’s presidential elections today will serve as a new gauge of the populist wave sweeping Western democracies, as a divided country’s decision at the voting booths could deliver the first freely elected far-right head of state in Europe since World War II.
The presidential election cliffhanger is all the more dramatic because it is a re-run of a vote held pre-Brexit and pre-Trump victory – and it is believed that it will serve to indicate whether popular anger at the political establishment has mounted.
European governments breathed a huge sigh of relief when Norbert Hofer, leader of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO), narrowly lost the original run-off in May with 49.65 percent of the vote.
Opinion polls indicate that the race is so close that the outcome may well come down to postal ballots. If so, the final election results might not be known till Tuesday. However, the first projections are anticipated shortly after 5 p.m. (16:00 GMT), once the last polls have closed.
Though it remains to be seen what effect Trump’s conservative victory and Brexit have had on Austrian popular opinion, the fact that blue-collar workers have identified with and supported Hofer, while the educated have backed his opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen, former leader of the Greens’ party, suggests that the fault lines are similar.
Van der Bellen, 72, who argues that Hofer wants Austria to hold its own “Oexit” referendum — thus jeopardizing jobs in the small, trade-dependent country — has put Brexit at the center of his campaign. “Let us not play with this fire. Let us not play with Oexit,” Van der Bellen said in the last televised presidential debate, alluding to Hofer’s initial stance that Austria could hold its own referendum within a year before backing down.
Though the FPO is leading in the polls with a backing from nearly a third of all voters and parliamentary elections are due to be held in 2018, Van der Bellen has also said that he would attempt to foil any FPO-led government even if it wins the election.
It is feared that a victory by the Austrian far right would deliver one of two potential almost simultaneous blows to Europe’s political establishment, given that opinion polls suggest Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi may lose in Italy’s referendum Sunday on constitutional reform.
While the office of the president in Austria has traditionally been a ceremonial role, Hofer has indicated that he would be a very interventionist head of state, and has even suggested that he would dismiss any government that hiked taxes and even call for referendums on a number of issues, despite the fact that referendums are outside of the role’s authority.
The FPO is tapping on a deep-seated anger and frustration at the domination of Austrian politics by two centrist parties that are once again in coalition, which has fanned its support by those who want to end its monopoly on power.
Austria, which is flanked in part by Slovakia, Switzerland, Italy and Germany, was caught up in Europe’s migration crisis last year, and FPO has played on voters’ growing unease over globalization and rising unemployment.
The outcome of today’s election is expected to put an end to the limbo of the Austrian people, as the irregularities in the count of postal votes last May’s presidential elections caused the result to be overturned, necessitating today’s rerun. Apparently, the glue on the envelopes for some postal ballots did not stick.