The Continuing Saga of the Austrian Presidential Elections

Commentary by Danaë LAZARI

Christian Michelides CC BY SA 4.0
Austria’s Constitutional Court votes to annul the result of the Presidential election – By Christian Michelides, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

If a week is a long time in politics, the last five have given onlookers enough change and uncertainty to last several months. In the month after it was announced that the UK had voted to leave the EU, Brexit dominated the political sphere – certainly in Europe, but with a strong presence internationally as well. Developments relating to the increasingly apparent uncertainty regarding any sort of an immediate cohesive plan for Brexit were interspersed by the narrowing down of the US presidential field, the terrible terrorist attacks in Bangladesh and Nice, among others, and the attempted coup d’état and subsequent governmental reaction in Turkey.

On 1 July Austria broke through the Brexit waves when it was announced that Austria’s highest court had decided to annul the presidential elections of 22 May, on the grounds that postal votes had been illegally and improperly handled.

GNU CC BY SA3.0.jpg
Alexander van der Bellen – By GNY, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

This year’s presidential campaign has been long. Austrian presidential elections take place under a two-round system, meaning that if no candidate achieves over 50% of the vote in the first round, the two candidates with the highest percentage proceed to a second round. On 22 April 2016, six candidates stood for election – up from just two in the previous elections in 2010. The two candidates to proceed to the second round on 22 May were Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party of Austria’s candidate, and Alexander van der Bellen, an ex-leader of the Green party who ran as an Independent. This was the first time that neither presidential candidate was backed by the ruling parties of government – the Social Democratic Party of Austria and the Austrian People’s Party – who have effectively been in power since the end of the Second World War.

Both candidates are popular – the extent to which became evident in the results of the second round of the elections on 22 May. After a nail-biting count, the votes came in 50.3%-49.7% in favour of Mr Van Der Bellen, who won by just 30,863 votes.

NorbertHofer
Norbert Hofer – Public domain

Mr Van Der Bellen is popular among more educated, urban voters. He spoke for an open, Europe-friendly Austria while also referring to traditionally right-wing concepts such as the ‘homeland’. Mr Hofer is extremely popular among working class voters, and has gained immense popularity in recent years in part due to his party’s nationalist and anti-immigration policies (Austria received over 150,000 refugees since mid-2015). Both have indicated their desire to stray from the traditionally purely ceremonial presidential position – Mr Hofer, for example, initially declared he would dissolve the government, while Mr Van Der Bellen said he would not swear in any Freedom Party of Austria candidate as Chancellor.

The election is now to be re-run on 2 October 2016, after Austria’s highest court found that over 75,000 votes were improperly handled (though not deliberately manipulated).

Two days after the result of the EU referendum was announced, Spain went to the polls to vote in a general election for the second time after parties failed to form a government earlier this year. The results indicated a slight shift in voter intentions, as nationalist parties such as Podemos did not win as big a percentage as polls had been expecting. In the last month, polls have shown that in many EU countries, opinion of EU membership as a positive thing has risen in the aftermath of the British vote to leave. It will be interesting to see if this summer’s events will have a noticeable effect on voter tendencies in Austria come Autumn, and if this could result in Austria having the first far-right head of state in the EU’s history.

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