5 December 2016

Norbert Hofer lost – so why are his party so happy?

By Karen Horn

“Grandma Gertrude” must be celebrating: Her favoured candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, will be the next Austrian president. And she herself will long be remembered for her moving video endorsement of him, which went viral within and beyond the little Alpine country of 8.7 million inhabitants.

While it will of course be impossible to measure the video’s exact impact, it certainly hit a nerve. A pensive Holocaust survivor, whose family perished in the camps, picked her words with care, intelligence and an air of melancholy as she criticised 45-year-old Norbert Hofer and his Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) for “bringing out the lowest instincts in people once again”.

On Sunday night, with a clear-cut victory of more than 6 percentage points for van der Bellen, Austria finally concluded its almost year-long presidential election.

In the first round in April, the candidates of the parties currently forming the coalition government, the Conservatives (ÖVP) and the Socialdemocrats (SPÖ), lost out against the two outsiders: van der Bellen, an independent supported by the Greens, and Hofer.

Van der Bellen then won a narrow victory in the second round in May, but the vote was annulled for improper counting. A re-vote in October had to be postponed because of malfunctioning glue on the envelopes.

What remains now – in the wake of a hateful, dirty campaign from the FPÖ – is a distinctly uneasy feeling. Almost half of Austrian voters would have preferred a president from the extreme right – whose victory would have been the first such since 1945 in any EU member state.

The 72-year-old van der Bellen has pledged to be the president of “all Austrians”. As he said on Sunday night, he will aim to heal a deeply divided country.

A well-known professor of economics, a Green politician since the early Nineties and a religious agnostic, van der Bellen stands for pro-European policies, free trade and a humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis.

However, his major concern is the labour market. In Austria, the unemployment rate has recently peaked at 8.6 per cent, a level not reached since the Fifties.

In theory, Van der Bellen’s ability to impact practical politics will be quite limited. In contrast to the system in the United States, the Austrian president’s role is essentially decorative.

At least, that’s the way past presidents have understood their jobs. Yet the written constitution is more expansive. The president is the commander-in-chief of the Austrian army. He is entitled to dismiss the government and to name a new Chancellor – and although the new appointee has to seek a majority in parliament, the president is not actually obliged to turn to the party that has earned the most votes. He can even veto international treaties.

Hofer announced during the campaign that, if elected, he would use his presidential power to dissolve government whenever he considered it did harm to the country, and to veto the TTIP trade deal with the US. “And you’d be surprised how much more it will be possible for me to do,” he bragged.

For his part, van der Bellen insisted during the campaign that whatever the results of the next parliamentary elections, due in 2018 at the latest, he would never invite an FPÖ politician to form a government.

But will he be faced with that choice?

Hofer’s party, the FPÖ, currently boasts 20.5 per cent of the seats in the National Council. Founded mostly by former Nazis and SS officials after the war, it has suffered several splits as it positioned itself awkwardly between crypto-fascist and free-market positions: the most recent occurred in 2005, when the aggressively populist leader Jörg Haider and his friends wandered off to found the “Alliance for the Future of Austria” (BZÖ).

The FPÖ, headed currently by Heinz-Christian Strache, puts “Austria first”. It draws its strength from nationalism, xenophobia, racism and an acute sense of cultural superiority – all of which its propaganda has spent decades fostering.

The recent refugee crisis, which cost former chancellor Werner Faymann his job, helped the Austrian extreme right in the same way as it helped the AfD in Germany. Its recipe for success was a blend of incendiary language and hands-on pragmatism, campaigning extensively at the local level and lending an ear to everyday concerns.

Like right-wing populists in the US and elsewhere, the FPÖ promotes ultra-conservative family values and anti-modern traditionalism. The party line also contains an ample dose of Euroscepticism, including a flirtation with “Öxit” – although Hofer tried to play this down, given that a majority of Austrians don’t support the idea.

Inevitably, the party sided with Vladimir Putin over Crimea – indeed, Hofer has called for economic sanctions against Russia to be ended. His campaign also focused on fierce opposition to immigration, Islam and gay marriage. A Protestant convert, one of his electoral slogans was “So wahr mir Gott helfe” (So help me God).

Hofer’s defeat – which saw his support drop by 3 per cent since May – was partly due to a negative “Trump effect”, with voters shocked by the US result unwilling to take a similar chance, and partly down to a general exasperation with his personal attacks on van der Bellen, a child of refugees from Estonia.

Yet Hofer’s party still interprets Sunday’s vote as a spectacular triumph. And observers expect the FPÖ to come in first in the next parliamentary elections – which might be sooner than expected, given the instability of the current government.

The two centrist parties, who both endorsed van der Bellen, can’t seem to get along, and are old, worn-out and lacking in new ideas. The only minister with any energy appears to be the ambitious 30-year-old foreign secretary Sebastian Kurz, who aims to present himself as the livewire saviour of the ÖVP.

Hofer has announced that he will run again in 2022, at the end of van der Bellen’s mandate. In the meantime, he will continue his work for the party.

Some are presenting yesterday’s result as a “turning of the tide”. In fact, it’s just a pause in the fighting.

Karen Horn is a German author, journalist and lecturer in the History of Economic Thought.