With the world’s eyes glued on the overwhelming media coverage of the American election, international audiences have seemingly forgotten about Austria’s presidential election, which has stirred-up substantial controversy over the last six months for being rescheduled twice after the initial vote on May 23, 2016. Following the marginal win for left-wing independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, who received 50.3% of the votes, opposition leader Nobert Hofer’s far-right party, FPÖ, contested the results due to the discovery that the mail-in ballots from six voting districts had not been properly counted. These ballots, ironically, would not have made a difference in the overall result of the election, however, the election was, nevertheless, rescheduled for October 2, 2016. Then, with less than a month before the re-vote in October, the election was again postponed until December 4, 2016, on the basis that the envelopes distributed for the postal ballots had faulty glue and would not seal. To date, the election is, remarkably, still set for the beginning of December.
Who are the candidates?
Running as an left-wing independent and backed financially by the Green party, Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor, past Green MP, and Vienna city councillor, is pioneering to become the first Green head of state in western Europe. A so-called “child of refugees,” he was born in Russia to a family of Dutch immigrant lineage who eventually settled in Austria, which has undoubtedly shaped his party platform, most notably his belief in Austia’s obligation to integrate their 90,000 most recent refugees.
Van der Bellen’s competition is far-right-wing candidate Nobert Hofer, who has threatened to dissolve the current government upon his election to stop immigration and has previously stated that “Islam has no place in Austria.” An Austrian-born electric power station director and gun enthusiast, Hofer’s represents the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ), and his Eurosceptic yet seemingly uncontroversial campaign managed to win 35% of the first-round vote, a feat which hasn’t been accomplished by a far-right party since World War Two.
What’s the big deal about this election?
At the end of the day, the results of this election will not have an immense impact on the inner-workings of the Austrian government. The president merely represents the government, signs treaties, and appoints and swears-in members of parliament, and therefore cannot really influence what the government does. The president can, however, appoint a chancellor to his liking from the party that holds the majority in office, and can also dissolve the government, which has never happened before in Austria’s history, yet has already been threatened by Hofer, making some Austrians uneasy.
Arguably more importantly, however, is that although this election directly affects the Austrian population, it also drastically affects European nationals, as it marks a distinctive change in mindset and transition in voting demographics that is undoubtedly linked to the new-found fear of mass immigration and skepticism of EU membership. After all, if a neutral country like Austria manages to have nearly 50% of its population support the right-wing, a definitive change in mentality has taken place, and it likely resonates in other EU countries. Therefore, the results of this election could have a great deal of influence on upcoming elections around the world, particularly in the EU, given the increased popularity of right-wing movements which have begun to split more conservative and xenophobic voters from those more liberal voters, or simply put, those who oppose the right-wing in office.
With EU governments currently preoccupied with tackling the current influx of migrants, conservative populations are unhappy with the amount of time and tax-payer money being spent on a population that they believe is dangerous and doesn’t concern them. Taking advantage of this fear and discontent, right-wing political parties have recently gained popularity around the EU with anti-immigration and even anti-EU platforms to win over voters, most notably the anti-immigrant, anti-islam, pro-Nexit PVV party in the Netherlands, and Nicolas Sarcozy’s newly revised anti-immigration party platform for France.
With this already increasing right-wing trend in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, all of which have major parliamentary or presidential elections in 2017, the outcome of the Austrian presidential election could definitely influence voters in the aforementioned elections. The election of a far-right president in a neutral country would, indeed, signify the beginning of a new chapter in European politics, pressuring voters, particularly on-the-fence voters, in other countries to the right-wing. On the contrary, the election of a left-wing president in Austria could have the reverse effect, giving hope to those who support left wing and socialist platforms and oppose being influenced by fear-tactics.
Although it is unlikely to have a monumental effect on Austria’s government and its citizens, the results of the Austrian presidential election could very definitely have a profound effect on the mindsets of EU nationals. With the controversial decisions that are currently faced by EU governments, particularly those with upcoming elections, it will be interesting to see if voter populations follow the Austrian trend and mirror the results of the December 4th election in 2017.