I write conscious that my understanding of internal Austrian politics is limited (though no worse, frankly, than that of most UK journalists and other commentators). However, this election is in some respects of more importance to wider Europe than it is to the Austrians themselves. I write also conscious of having only visited Austria a few times: a week in Vienna in the 1980s; a 2-day crossing by car from East to West, from Hungary to Germany, in 2001; some plane changes at Vienna Airport en route to or from Almaty, Kazakhstan in the 1990s.
This is not an electoral contest which has no wider effects. Austria, like Switzerland, is at the spiritual centre of Europe, as well as being in the geographical centre of both Europe and Central Europe.
The election comes at a moment when symbols matter as much as practicalities: the President of Austria has few powers, though one, the power to dissolve parliament and call a general election, may be key, in that, if elected, Norbert Hofer will be able to call such an election just at the moment when the Freedom Party (FPO) is in the ascendant. Austria would then have both President and Prime Minister from the Freedom Party.
The symbolism noted above relates to the wave of professed anti-System upsurges across the West: UK Brexit referendum, Trump’s egregious rise to power in the USA, Marine le Pen and Front National mounting a credible presidential election challenge in France; the referenda in Italy and the Netherlands. If Hofer can succeed (and the UK bookmakers had him odds-on yesterday, if that means anything), the balance of power tilts in Europe, in the EU. It would make a (far more important) Marine le Pen victory in 2017 more likely and that really might be a tipping-point for the EU and Europe.
The key points about Hofer are positive, as far as I am concerned. Hofer, like Marine le Pen, is in favour of stronger ties to Russia; he wants to protect Austria and wider Europe from Islamization via Muslim numbers, births and cultural influence; while Hofer seems not to have said much about Jewish Zionism (Austria having even less freedom of expression now than France or the UK), it is noteworthy that the Jews in Austria and abroad have come out openly against Hofer. Social nationalists will take the point and, if Austrian, vote accordingly! In other words and in general, Hofer seems to be singing from the right page.
A Europe and an EU with Hofer (et al) in Vienna and with Marine le Pen in Paris, with, beyond Europe itself (and despite my very considerable reservations) Trump in Washington D.C. and Putin in Moscow (Russia being neither European nor Asian but, in reality, sui generis), the world will be in a better place than it might have been.
I am writing before close of polling in Austria. Soon we shall know the result. May it be the right result.
Note: the above blog post was written and published only minutes before the news broke that Norbert Hofer and Freedom Party had lost the election. I have decided to leave it up in the interests of honesty and integrity. I got it wrong, but the reasoning was right. Freedom Party may still win the next general election if the cards fall in the right order.
It seems, at time of writing this update, that Norbert Hofer was voted for by about 47% of the Austrian voters who voted. That must presage well for Freedom Party, in that Hofer’s opponent was a catch-all candidate voted for not on his own merits (if any) but as an anti-Freedom Party figurehead. The next general election in Austria will be different.
In the end, the status quo has been maintained in Austria. This is no “anti-fascist” or “anti-Nazi” victory. It would have been better had Hofer won, but in the longer term, this result might actually be a good thing.