Austrian Elections: Split By a Hair

Caitlin McLaren - 3T Chemical
Posted on: June 5, 2016

On the 23rd of May, the winner of Austria’s presidential election was announced: Alexander Van der Bellen, with 50.35% of the vote. His opponent, Norbert Hofer, won the remaining 49.65%. The margin of victory was little over 31,000 votes, out of a pool of almost 6.4 million eligible voters and a turnout of nearly 73%.

The president-elect, Alexander Van der Bellen, is a retired professor of economics at the University of Vienna, and a member of the Green Party of Austria, which, as its name suggests, has a strong platform on ecological issues and supports liberal social policies. Van der Bellen, however, ran as a nominally independent candidate endorsed by the Green Party, as he is personally more popular than the party itself. Van der Bellen is in favour of the European Union and supports European federalism.

He could not stand in further contrast to his narrowly-defeated opponent, Norbert Hofer, a relatively young and outspoken right-wing populist politician who has been compared to the more notorious Marine Le Pen of France and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. He is a member of the Freedom Party of Austria, a party that is currently right-wing, anti-immigration, anti-Islamic, and broadly nationalist and eurosceptic. Hofer ran on a platform of “putting Austria first”. If Hofer had won, he would have been the first far-right Western European head of state since the Second World War.

Hofer won a plurality of votes in the first round of the election, receiving about 35% of the popular vote, while Van der Bellen received 21%. In third place came another independent candidate, Irmgard Griss, with 19%, followed by Rudolf Hundstorfer of the Social Democratic Party of Austria and Andreas Khol of the Austrian People’s Party, with about 11% each. Interestingly, the latter two parties are the current governing parties in Austria; thus, even the preliminary results indicated a great shift in the public opinion.

According to the Austrian electoral system, if a candidate fails to obtain a majority of the vote in the first round of the election, the two candidates who received the highest numbers then face off against each other in a second round. The second round took place on May 22; at first, Hofer received 51.9% of the vote, but when the absentee ballots were counted the next day, Van der Bellen had a very slim majority. There was a recount, and even some allegations of electoral fraud, and the Freedom Party of Austria considered a legal challenge to the results; the leader of the party, Heinz-Christian Strache, publicly questioned “irregularities” in the way the votes were counted. However, to his credit Hofer himself urged his supporters to “pull together” and accept the results, saying “There are no signs of electoral fraud”.

In the political system of Austria, the office of president is not a particularly politically powerful one; Austria operates under a parliamentary system and, while presidents theoretically have a great deal of authority, the role is largely one of a figurehead. However, the results say a great deal about the current political climate of Austria and, in fact, Europe and the world in general.

Austria is deeply polarized on issues such as immigration, the best ways to combat radical Islam, the place of government, and the balance of national interests and individual freedoms. The economic situation and the recent refugee crisis have brought these issues into the foreground. Furthermore, Austrians are dissatisfied with the way the current government operates on these issues and others, paving the way for non-traditional candidates to achieve victory. Election statistics also bring up some telling, though not necessarily surprising, results, such as a rural-urban split, with rural and working-class areas leaning to the right, and urban and economically privileged areas leaning more left. There was also a gender divide, with around 60% of men leaning right and the same number of women leaning left. Overall, the country was very much split down the middle.

Austria is thus a microcosm, with a political situation that reflects and emphasizes similar rifts around the world; in Europe, where candidates such as the aforementioned Le Pen and Wilders, and other far-right leaders gain in popularity due to the economic and refugee crises and threats of terrorism, and in America, where the rise of the populist Republican Donald Trump and the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders highlight the country’s division into ever more deeply entrenched right and left camps. This is a world where partisan politics are beginning to threaten countries’ abilities to function.

Van der Bellen is hopeful that this can be overcome. His words have been conciliatory; he declared that the results show that “the country is made up of two equally important halves”, and that he would “certainly endeavour to build bridges over the trenches that have been dug, to certainly not dig them deeper, and to make an effort to take everybody in this country with me”. The world will be watching to see if he can succeed.