Austria's Presidential Election Could Shock Europe

Norbert Hofer
Austrian far-right Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, right, in Vienna April 22. Hofer could win the presidency in Sunday's second round vote. Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Austria could be set to elect the EU's first-ever hard-right head of state, in a new milestone for the continent-wide advance by right-wing parties that will have mainstream politicians across Europe looking nervously at their poll ratings.

In the second round of the presidential elections on Sunday, Norbert Hofer, the candidate for the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) who won the poll's first round with more than 35 percent of the vote in April, is to face off against his independent rival Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Green party, who took just over 21 percent.

The role of president is largely ceremonial, but the head of state does have some powers, including the theoretical right to appoint and dismiss government ministers. Victory for the FPO on Sunday would send a shudder through political moderates in Austria and across the continent.

"A victory for Norbert Hofer could not only be dangerous for Austria, but also for Europe," says Karoline Graswander-Hainz, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Austria's ruling Social Democratic Party.

"During interviews or discussions he tries to keep the image of a nice, smart, likeable, young and fresh candidate who understands the citizens and their fears, but if you see him talking in front of his own party and their members Norbert Hofer shows his real face: anti-European, against refugees, against foreigners," she adds.

The FPO's platform centers around controlling immigration. The party initially drew the bulk of its support from former National Socialists, but had substantially moderated by the 1980s.

But the shock wouldn't stem so much from the rise of a far-right party as the lack of any coherent mainstream opposition to it, says Josef Janning, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.

"It's not so much the emergence of new parties on the fringes but the degree to which the center is crumbling which is keeping the people awake at night," he says. In Austria's Presidential election, no candidate from a mainstream party made it past the first round of voting. Across the continent, hard-right parties such as the Front National in France and the AFD in Germany are making significant electoral advances.

Graswander-Hainz agrees that mainstream parties have to do more to combat the growing appeal of right-wing populism. "It is of utmost importance now to listen carefully to our citizens' concerns, their sorrows and their fears to regain trust towards politics and deliver practical solutions to combat the current problems," she says.

Austria's Social Democratic Party Chancellor Werner Faymann stood down earlier this month. Faymann struggled to present a credible alternative to hard-right rhetoric on the refugee crisis, having initially supported German Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door approach in 2015, before veering to the right, controversially imposing border controls at the start of this year.

Last time the FPO got near power in Austria, when it joined the country's then-coalition government in 2000, the European Union's 14 other member states froze bilateral diplomatic relations with Austria.

But Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office of the Open Europe think tank, believes nothing so extreme would happen this time. "I think because it's more a ceremonial president…I think the reaction will be quite limited." Cleppe adds that Hofer has moderated his opinion on sustaining the EU's free-movement Schengen zone, meaning Brussels will find it easier to work with him.

But whatever the level of outcry, Graswander-Hainz thinks the stakes could not be higher. "We need to protect our democracy, the rule of law and our European values," she says.

"If we do not succeed, these movements will destroy our European democracy."