Rise of far-right in Austrian presidential election 'signals need for drastic changes’

Austrian far right Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer talks to supporters after the final election rally in Vienna, Austria © Leonhard Foeger
Austria’s extremely close-run presidential vote reveals people are disappointed with the political system and don’t feel represented any longer, while the refugee crisis, the euro crisis and dissatisfaction with the EU have also caused the shift to the right in Austria, experts say.

According to preliminary results, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer was ahead in Austria’s presidential election with 51.9 percent of the vote. Then a late swing in the postal ballots gave victory to his rival, independent Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Before the final results were counted, RT asked experts what a Hofer win could have meant for Austria and the EU.

If Hofer won, it wouldn’t have an immediate political impact in Austria, because the president doesn’t really have political influence on day-to-day politics, says Dr. Heinz Gaertner from the Austrian Institute for International Affairs in Vienna.

“There would not be an immediate political impact on the European level either. But it might change the atmosphere in Austria and also in Europe,” he told RT. He said the country is currently split into two camps: “the right-wing supporters of Hofer and liberal-democrats and liberal-conservatives who have a very different policy in mind.”

Alexander Markovics, from the right-wing "Generation Identity" movement in Austria, argued that a Hofer’s victory would be very decisive for the Freedom Party.

“It would be finally a possibility for the Freedom Party to redefine the position of the Austrian president which is actually very powerful, but its power was not used in the past,” he said.  

According to Heinz Gaertner, “the constitution gives the president a right to dissolve parliament and dismiss the government. But no president so far has used this right.”

However, he does not think “a future president – even Hofer – would use it, or I would say, abuse it that way.”

For the first time since the Second World War, the two main centrist parties were knocked out in the election's first round. About half the voters support far-right views.  

“Many are just not satisfied with the coalition government we have had for many years; they just want to have a change,” Gaertner said, commenting on what could have caused voters to support Hofer. In his view though, it’s not really a right-wing shift what’s happening in Austria, but rather a divide - particularly on such issues as migrants and refugees.   

According to Alexander Markovics, the polarization within the Austrian society “is huge” and it has caused a shift of public opinion.

“We have the socialists and conservatives who made the immigrant invasion in summer 2015 possible and who also let the security situation totally get out of hand. And now in Vienna we have ‘no-go’ areas where Austrians cannot go any longer, we have huge ethnic tensions because of the mass migration which escalated last year,” he said. “A lot of people are disoriented and totally disappointed with the political system in Austria because they don’t feel represented any longer since they could not participate in these decisions.”

Friedrich Schneider, Economics Professor at the University of Linz, agrees the shift to the right was caused by the refugee crisis. Other causes, he believes, are “the euro crisis” and the “dissatisfaction with the European Union.”

These three components, he said, “create a great uncertainty for a lot of Austrians.”

“The future doesn’t look so positive anymore – we have rising unemployment. All this helps conservative parties which seem to have simple solutions to get votes…it is now up to the government to steer against this, to make policies which are credible and to take this vote into consideration for the next policy steps. …It is a clear signal for Austria that current politics have to make drastic changes,” Schneider said.

Hofer’s age – he is only 45 years old, while his rival Alexander Van der Bellen is 72 – could have also given him additional points among the voters,  said Arnold Kammel, director of the Austrian Institute for European Policy and Security in Vienna.

“I think Mr. Hofer, being the younger candidate, had somewhat the advantage of giving the population a feeling that their concerns are taken seriously,” he told RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.