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Austrian voters push back against far-right populism

Europe’s mainstream political parties have voiced their relief after Austria voted against a far-right nationalist becoming president in an election that had been seen as the first of two tests of populism on the continent on Sunday.

Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green politician who ran as an independent, won 53.3 per cent of the vote while his far-right opponent, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom party, won 46.7 per cent, according to projections based on a near-complete count.

Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, on Sunday congratulated Mr Van der Bellen, saying he had won the presidential election with a clear pro-European message. “[His] victory is a heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism,” he tweeted.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, also hailed the defeat of the far-right candidate, saying it was a “good sign against populism in Europe”, while Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, welcomed “the continued constructive contribution of Austria to finding common European solutions”.

Mr Van der Bellen’s victory came as Italians were still going to the polls on Sunday night in a constitutional referendum that would decide Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s future.

The Austrian result, which gave Mr Van der Bellen a wider lead than in May when the election was first held, suggests support for political disruption may have reached a limit following Donald Trump’s election in the US and the UK vote to leave the EU.

“The narrative of these forces being unstoppable has been broken — or at least stalled,” said Thomas Hofer, political analyst in Vienna. “It lifts some of the pressure and gloom about where Europe is going.”

Mr Van der Bellen attributed his victory to a “broad movement” of thousands of Austrians independent of his campaign who had mobilised behind him to support his “pro-European Austria” stance.

In Brussels, the result was greeted with a “sense of relief”, a high-level European official said. After the Brexit shock and Mr Trump’s triumph, there was anxiety in the EU capital that victory for Mr Hofer would spur far-right candidates in the Netherlands, France and Germany in elections next year.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at consultants Eurasia Group, said the results would encourage mainstream leaders ahead of Dutch French and German elections. “This will slow the momentum of Europe’s populist march and give hope to the centrists. It suggests that the establishment will have an opportunity to fight back,” he said.

Nevertheless the strong showing by the Freedom party — founded by former Nazis in the 1950s — is still likely to be seen as a boost for Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front ahead of her country’s presidential election next year.

[Van der Bellen’s] victory is a heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism

Opinion polls suggest the Freedom party could become Austria’s largest political party after parliamentary elections due by September 2018 but widely expected to be called early. That could see the party’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, become the country’s next chancellor.

“This may be only a temporary relief for European leaders if it strengthens the Freedom party’s chances in parliamentary elections,” said Heather Grabbe, European politics expert at the Open Society European Policy Institute.

Since 1945, the Austrian president has been either a candidate of the centre-left Social Democrat or the centre-right People’s parties. The two form a “grand coalition” government. But support for the Freedom party rose as the country’s economy underperformed European rivals and voters fretted about seemingly uncontrolled inflows of refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria.

Mr Van der Bellen, however, may have benefited from voters’ concerns about Freedom party threats to call a referendum on Austria’s EU membership. As a small exporting country, Austria relies heavily on trade links, especially with Germany. Mr Strache complained that the Freedom party had faced a “massive campaign of angst-making”.

Mr Van der Bellen has said he would resist appointing a Freedom party candidate as Austria’s chancellor. Constitutional experts have cast doubt, however, on whether he could really oppose a popularly elected government coalition.

Mr Hofer’s campaign played on popular fears about Islamic influence over Austrian culture.

Alexander Van der Bellen on Sunday © AFP

In May, Mr Van der Bellen won by just 31,000 voters. That contest was declared invalid by the country’s constitutional court after irregularities in the counting of postal votes. Originally scheduled for October, the re-run was then delayed when faults were found in the glue used to seal postal votes.

Additional reporting by Arthur Beesley in Brussels

Via FT