With the electoral defeat of Norbert Hofer of the conservative populist and anti-EU Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) by retired economics professor and leader of the Greens party, Alexander Vanderbellen, the electorate of Austria have shown the world that they are in favor of continuing down the path of socialism, open door immigration and embracing the European Union.
Last Sunday's election brought an end to one of Austria's longest election cycles, which was supposed to end in May in the second election round, but was re-scheduled due to 20 electoral districts violating electoral laws. The popularity of Hofer's Freedom Party showed the continuing tide of populism rising in Europe against the EU bureaucracy. However, despite his popularity, Hofer only received 46.2% of the popular vote to Vanderbellen's 53.8%. A week before the day of the election, the polls were neck and neck and too close to call, making the results that much more unpredictable.
This has to do with the fact that unlike the populace in countries like the UK, Hungary, Italy and others, the Austrian people are largely supportive of the EU and Austria's social democracy. The growing support of the Austrian Freedom Party was evident in this election, but it was not enough to break through the status quo support of Austria's left leaning policies. The clash between the conservative populists and socialists was evident during this election and a few factors may have changed the outcome.
Presidential elections in Austria are held under a two round system, where if no one candidate receives 50% of the vote in the first round, then the first and second place finishers are moved on to a second round at a later date, where the remaining candidates are eliminated from the race. In the first round on April 24th, Norbert Hofer finished first with 35.05% of the popular vote to Vanderbellen's 21.34%, with four other candidates placing below 20%. This was an unprecedented victory for the Austrian Freedom Party and it showed that conservative populism had spread to the nation.
The second round took place on May 22nd, with Alexander Vanderbellen narrowly winning by roughly 30,000 votes, a less than 1% lead. This round showed how truly polarized the nation was on issues such as the EU and open door immigration from Islamic countries. The results of this round however were challenged by the Freedom Party chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, who brought an appeal to the Constitutional Court with the claim that over 30,000 ballots had been prematurely tallied, over 50,000 ballots had been counted by unauthorized personnel and over 500,000 were invalid. In addition to this, claims were made by Strache that minors and non-citizens were allowed to vote. The constitutional court had found 77,926 ballots had been affected by breaches of the electoral code, and the court ordered the second vote to be held on October 2nd.
Until the October 2nd election, the outgoing president Heinz Fischer would be replaced by an interim National Presidential Council composed of three co-presidents, one of which was Norbert Hofer himself. Throughout July, August and September, Hofer was leading in the polls and was poised to win on October 2nd. However, on September 12th the election was delayed yet again, this time due to faulty glue on voting envelopes. The Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said that he “had no choice” but to ask the Austrian Parliament to pass legislation to allow the election to be postponed over the insignificant technical issue. Under Austrian law, the postponement of a Presidential election is restricted to extreme circumstances, such as the death of a candidate.
Faulty glue hardly fits that category. Sobotka is a member of the Austrian People's Party, a center right, Christian Democratic Party that is currently in coalition with the left-wing Social Democratic Party. These parties, being pro-EU and open to Islamic immigration being very fearful of a victory by the Freedom Party, took advantage of this tiny irregularity to delay the election when Hofer's chances of winning were high in the hopes that a two month delay would give Vanderbellen a better chance at winning. This is exactly what happened.
On December 4th, Vanderbellen won with 53.8% of the vote to Hofer's 46.2%. Hofer conceded defeat the evening of the election, paving the way for Vanderbellen to extend the left wing policies of the Austrian political system as well as welcome with open arms the European Union's domineering regulations. It seems that if the election had taken place on October 2nd as planned there is a good chance that Norbert Hofer would have won. Hofer's loss shows that the well entrenched leftist establishment in Europe is still strong, and not every conservative populist who fights the EU will necessarily win.
A recent tide of victories against the EU and the left have lead many to believe that the continent is heading in a new direction away from socialism. However, the establishment parties are still very powerful and have a large amount of support. The tide of conservative populism in Europe is young and parties like the Austrian Freedom Party have historically been small fringe parties until as of late. Nevertheless, within the last decade nearly every european election has resulted in a slow move towards the right, giving the smaller conservative populist parties more support and a fighting chance to strike back against the European Union's leadership.
The loss of Norbert Hofer to Alexander Vanderbellen is not the end of the fight against the leftist establishment in Austria. The fact that Norbert Hofer's party got so close to winning the election shows that the game has changed, and the pro-EU bureaucrats in Austria may only be basking in a temporary victory.