This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 24 May 2016
On Sunday, 22 May, Austrian went to the polls for the second round of presidential elections which – for the first time in Austrian history – did not include the candidates of SPÖ and ÖVP. Alexander Van der Bellen (independent/Greens) narrowly beat his opponent, Norbert Hofer (FPÖ), with a razor-thin margin of just 31,000 votes (0.6%) in a neck-and-neck race that was only decided on Monday afternoon after all postal votes had been counted. While a victory of the far-right Hofer, widely feared by international and a majority of national commentators alike, has thus been averted, the election marks without doubt a pivotal moment in Austrian politics. It spells the end of the dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP, the manifestation of ever stronger political divisions between the far-right and the remainder of the political spectrum, and seems to fall within a larger trend in support for right-wing parties and candidates in European politics.
Already the results of the first round had shaken up Austrian politics. First, neither candidate of the governing parties SPÖ and ÖVP – who have dominated the Austrian presidency and government since the end of WWII – made it into the run-off. Both only polled a combined 22.4% of votes – far below their worst combined result yet. Following the election debacle and repeated calls for consequences, Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) eventually resigned, citing a lack of support in his party. There have not been any consequences yet in the the ÖVP, yet it is likely that the party will, too, try to reinvent itself at least partially before the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Analysts were unsure of whether Van der Bellen, a veteran Green politician (though formally independent), would be able to catch up to Hofer, who serves as one of the speakers of Austria’s federal parliament. Already shortly after the exit polls for the first round had been announced, parties categorically declined to make any kind of recommendations – only the third-placed candidate Irmgard Griss (independent) indirectly came out in support for Alexander Van der Bellen shortly before the second round, saying that she had given him her (postal) vote. The campaign of the two candidates was overshadowed by their widely panned performance during an experimental TV debate in which they went head to head without any TV presenter to moderate the discussion. Regardless, voters turned out in larger numbers to the polls on Saturday – turnout increased by 4% to 72.7% (the highest value since 1998).
During the election night (or afternoon, to be precise) tensions were running high after a first exit poll suggested a victory for Hofer, yet too narrow to exceed the margin of error. Subsequently, projections quickly suggested a stalemate between candidates and it became clear that the race would only be decided after counting the postal vote on Monday. Although Hofer had the majority of votes cast in ballot offices across the country (among these Van der Bellen only received a majority in Vienna and the state of Voralberg), Van der Bellen eventually won the election thanks to an overwhelming majority 61.7% among postal votes (with 746,110 they represented 16.6% of all votes). While some commentators suggested that parties might try to challenge such a narrow victory by either candidates, Hofer acknowledged his defeat on Monday afternoon.
Van der Bellen’s election introduces an unknown intro Austrian politics which – with regard to both chancellery and presidency – has hitherto been dominated by SPÖ and ÖVP. Although Van der Bellen formally ran as an independent, he is still formally a member of the Green party (which also supported his candidacy logistically and financially). While the Green party is part of the parliamentary opposition, it would be incorrect to speak of the advent of a period of cohabitation. Despite his general opposition to the dominance of the two mainstream parties voiced during the campaign, Van der Bellen’s relationship with the government is likely to be neutral and even if not unified at least supportive. Van der Bellen will have to show some moderate activism to please his electorate and while this could be markedly more than his predecessors (who largely refrained from interference in day-to-day politics) it will be far from the dramatic steps promised by his defeated contender Hofer (who signalled he would dismiss the government and dissolve parliament).
Irrespective of the fact that Hofer lost the runoff, he – and his party – will play a much more prominent role in Austrian politics from now on. Since January this year, opinion polls see the FPÖ at 32-34% which would make them the largest party in the next federal election (on overage, SPÖ and ÖVP only poll around 22% each). Hofer’s success also seems to fit in with a larger trend of gains by far-right parties across Europe. While these have partly been able to feed on anti-immigrant sentiments amidst the influx of refugees into (Western) Europe, in Austria the success of the FPÖ also seems attributable to an anti-establishment mood which is not sufficiently and/or successfully articulated by other political parties.