By Sonam Kotadia
Eight days following the Brexit referendum, another shock reverberated across the European Union: In Austria, a small alpine country nestled between Germany and the edge of the former Iron Curtain, the Constitutional Court annulled the results of the presidential election held in May on the grounds of concerning irregularities in the handling and counting of votes. As a result, the election would have to be repeated later in the year, on December 4.
The shock does not concern the allegations of misconduct as much as the repetition of the vote. The original election attracted the attention of politicians and the media across the continent. Alexander Van der Bellen of the left-wing Green Party and Norbert Hofer of the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) beat out the candidates of the two mainstream parties, the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP), to reach the final round of the election. This was startling for two reasons: 1) either – or, more commonly, both – the SPÖ or the ÖVP have been in power since 1945 and 2) if Hofer were to win, he would be the first far-right politician to become head of state in Europe in the postwar era. In the polls preceding the May election, Hofer led by a narrow margin; however, Van der Bellen ultimately won by 30,863 votes, approximately 0.3% of the total turnout. Although it was by no means a comfortable victory, moderates let out a sigh of relief.
The decision of the Constitutional Court smothered this relief. The president holds little power in Austria, serving a primarily ceremonial role; nevertheless, the marked popularity of Hofer and the FPÖ in general is genuine cause for alarm. In the post-war era, Austria has had a singular experience. Although it bordered the Eastern bloc, it remained a “Western” European power. Furthermore, by characterizing itself as “Hitler’s first victim,” the country evaded confronting the sense of national guilt that Germany suffered. Former Nazis were therefore not viewed with the same level of abhorrence; in fact, former SS officers founded the FPÖ in the 1950s. This combination of factors allowed for Austria to build its economy and “good guy” reputation, its social services and nationalism. With this in mind, one can consider it both particularly inclined towards and resistant to right-wing populism.
The current influx of refugees as well as a slight increase in the unemployment seem to have pushed many voters towards the FPÖ. Like other right-wing populist parties, it capitalizes on xenophobic, Eurosceptic, and ultra-nationalistic rhetoric. Its campaign posters are littered with controversial slogans like “Love for our country, not Moroccan thieves” (Heimatsliebe statt Marokkaner-Diebe), “Islam is not at home here” (Daham statt Islam), and “More support for our Viennese blood: Too many foreigners do no one good” (Mehr Mut für unser Wiener Blut: Zu viel Fremdes tut niemand gut).  Hofer himself has called for South Tyrol, a German-speaking part of northern Italy, to be annexed by Austria, an appeal that calls not only Putin’s invasion of Crimea but also Hitler’s initial annexations to mind.
Now, when the EU seems to be at its very weakest, the results of the reelection in Austria are of no small import. For example, they serve as an important indicator for the outcomes of upcoming elections in other EU member states, such as France and Germany. Furthermore, in the light of Brexit, some analysts predict that, if Hofer were to win, Austria may follow a similar route. At the moment, Hofer holds a slim lead over Van der Bellen; we shall see if this will last until December, the date of the reelection. If the world wants to stem the tide of political extremism, it should be watching.
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