It went wrong for Norbert Hofer and the international alliance of right populist and racist groups supporting him, from the U.K.’s Nigel Farage to Czechoslovakian President Vaclaw Klaus, from Marine Le Pen to Viktor Orban, from Italy’s Northern League to the extra-parliamentary far right mobilized en masse in Austria in the hope of electing Hofer to the presidency.
“With him, the country will change course,” the head of the Austrian Identitarian Party Erich Siller told us on Friday in Vienna. “We will stop the Islamization of Austria and Europe, and we will defend our country.”
It didn’t happen. Western Europe won’t get its first extreme right president just yet. They took a resounding defeat, resulting in an even more optimistic outcome: The new president of Austria is Alexander Van der Bellen, first Green president in Europe. The candidates of the Social Democratic government party (SPOe) and the Popular Party (OeVP) had been eliminated in the first round.
In the Lower Austrian village of Ernsdorf, one family of Afghan refugees breathed a sigh of relief Sunday morning. They had been expelled from Croatia, then sent back to Austria thanks to the efforts of volunteers. They told us, “if Hofer wins, we would not be able to defend the asylum seekers we are currently supporting, they will be expelled en masse.”
Another Austria, this time, prevailed with a very clear message: It was not a head-to-head result, as had happened in the May election. The former leader of the Green won with 53.3 percent of the votes, while Hofer won 46 percent. The large gap was evident from the first data projections and it could not be disputed. There was no need to wait to open the envelopes of votes submitted by mail.
The 6 percent margin, if compared to the results of last May when Van der Bellen, a former economics professor, had won with only a 0.6 percent advantage, achieved with the better outcome in the ballots submitted by mail. So, half an hour after the polls closed, the FPOe acknowledged its defeat in shocked disbelief.
On Monday, we finally saw a photo of the two candidates in reversed roles: Hofer no longer has the eternal winner smile plastered on his face. He said he was sad, “but I’m not angry. The voters are always right.”
And there was a smiling Van der Bellen, finally relaxed and visibly lifted and energized. The new president is delighted by the No victory in the Italian referendum. In Austria, the subject has been treated in the media solely in the light of a threat of a populist anti-European victory at the gates if Renzi falls, as if there was a risk of a figure similar to Hofer in Italy.
The challenge to Van Der Bellen’s victory in May did not help the FPOe. There wasn’t a Brexit and Trump effect in favor of the right; if anything, it was the opposite. There was fear of a similar rise in Austria, which with Hofer would have been likely to forge a common block with the Eastern more nationalistic countries. Stopping Hofer was in fact the main reason Austrians went for Alexander Van Der Bellen, a committed Europeanist. The right-wing populist wave did not find any confirmation but suffered its first setback.
The vote showed a strong gender difference of electoral choices: 62 percent of women voted for the Greens candidate, who was successful among all the electoral female age groups. Meanwhile, Hofer only earned the votes of 38 percent of women. But he won the male vote, with 56 percent of men voting for Hofer and only 46 percent for Van der Bellen.
By age, Van der Bellen has clearly won among young people up to 29 years of age; 69 percent of women in this age bracket voted for him. There was a gigantic diversity of political orientation according to the level of education. Among graduates, an overwhelming 83 percent chose him, while only 17 percent voted for Hofer, who did not find any supporters among artists, intellectuals or writers. In all segments of the population with low education levels, who did not complete high school, Hofer won; in all other segments, Van der Bellen did.
A disturbing fact emerges from the workers’ vote, which we observed first hand during our visit to the industrial areas in Styria: 85 percent of all workers voted for Hofer, and only 15 percent for Van der Bellen, who during his election campaign neglected the factories. In all other categories, if the early data are accurate, Van der Bellen won among employees, civil servants and pensioners.
Despite having been supported by a wide array of forces — the majority of the Social Democrats, Chancellor Christian Kern, former Popular Party politicians and a committee of popular mayors of small towns — the brunt of the election campaign has weighed on the Greens, impeding them to engage in any other political activity. The secretary of the Green Party and leader of the parliamentary group Eva Glawischnig said: “For the Greens, it is a historic day and a relief. The defamation campaigns against us and Van der Bellen did not pay off.”
The Green regional “capital” was Graz, where Van der Bellen won 64.4 percent of the votes, followed by Vienna with 63.3 percent. In some districts of the capital he earned around 80 percent, and in one particular district it was 90 percent. The best result Hofer got in Vienna was in a small district of a region inhabited by many policemen, at 77 percent.
Sunday’s vote is a clear rejection of the possibility of Austria leaving the European Union. The FPOe already submitted an application to parliament for a future referendum on the subject, but it is not credible. The poisonous anti-immigrant climate fomented by FPOe finally sparked more fears than consensus.
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