Interview. The economist Alexander Van der Bellen is headed into a runoff election for president against the right-wing FPOE party.

If I become president of Austria

He’s 72 years old, a former political economics professor at the universities of Vienna and Innsbruck, with a thin beard, often distracted. From 1997 to 2008, Alexander Van der Bellen was the national spokesman and leader of the Greens, a party that grew strong under his direction. His wry and thoughtful style, slow and decidedly non-populist, is perceived as being different and not comparable to the hated “caste of politicians.” An anti-establishment character, known for his thoughtful pauses, enjoys widespread credibility beyond the Green camp and is convincing with his natural and autonomous demeanor.

Van der Bellen ran as an independent candidate in Sunday’s presidential elections. He secured just 21 percent of the vote, but it was enough to secure a runoff against Austria’s right-wing party. Van der Bellen was most successful in the big cities, in Vienna, Graz, Linz, Innsbruck and Bregenz, and among voters with higher education. His campaign is managed and financed by the Greens, by well-known writers, actors, lawyers and scientists of different political areas, who support him. A comeback for Van der Bellen will be difficult, but definitely possible if you take into account that 40 percent of usual Greens voters did not turn out at the polls.

He spoke with il manifesto by phone before Sunday’s vote.

Let’s start with the Brenner Pass, the symbol of a Europe without borders. Austria has started to rebuild fences, and Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil announced the complete closure of the border if necessary. How do you assess this initiative?

I find it horrible to erect a wall of Fortress Europe right at the Brenner Pass, where it took 80 years to open the borders to the free movement of people and goods. I consider the Austrian government totally apathetic. Europe must not leave Italy alone. I, by the way am a Tyrolean. What happens there affects me directly, and it pains me. I feel ashamed thinking that the Austrian government may be recalled from the European Union. To me, Brenner is not a border. To me, it is the symbol of the building and growth of a unified Europe. In this sense, I agree with the governor of South Tyrol Arno Kompatscher who warned against physically reinstalling this border.

As President of the Republic, how could you intervene? As supreme commander of the army, could you prevent sending troops to the Brenner, as announced by Doskozil?

The President of the Republic can only make an impact on the situation with speeches, calls and other meetings with the corresponding ministers. However, the executive power lies in the government’s hands.

Every day Austria seals more boundaries, toward Hungary in the east and to the south also to Tarvisio. Simultaneously the government is deciding the tightening of asylum law, its “elimination,” according to many critics, proclaiming an “emergency order and security situation.” Is there such a state of emergency? Would you sign a law that violates human rights?

As guardian of the constitution, the President of the Republic needs to ensure the regularity of procedures. The Constitutional Court rules on the content, however, after a law has already been approved. In this case, the right to resort to “emergency,” a law I am strongly critical of, as president, I would review thoroughly with constitutional jurists whether the law complies with the charter to prevent its approval. I do not see a state of emergency in Austria. If anything, the government itself is creating it.

It is surprising that the national strategies not agreed at the European level are put in place by a Social Democratic chancellor. How do you explain the change of Faymann, who last autumn criticized Orban for siding with “up with the barriers”?

In fact, the chancellor has changed his policy, which for a time was the same as Angela Merkel. I would not want to speculate on the reasons.

For the first time in an election campaign, you have used the concept of “Heimat,” or home [home location, distinct from Vaterland], a term normally used by the FPOE [right-wing party]. On what content is your message based and how is it different from that propagated by the right?

I am the son of refugees, and Austria gave me a home. For me, a homeland is a place where I can feel well, feel comfortable, where I am accepted, where over time I can find a job, maybe even have a career. Homeland is something that must be open and not restricted to people who have already been here maybe 300 years, as the FPOE would like. So to someone who has lost their homeland, for example because of war, he or she can find it again in another place.

What would a FPOE a victory mean for Austria? Is there a risk that soon you would have a Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache chancellor?

At the moment the FPOE is first in all polls concerning the general election. If the FPOE candidate Norbert Hofer becomes President of the Republic, then at the next general election the head of the FPOE H.C. Strache could become chancellor. It would be a crazy concentration of power in the hands of this party. I doubt that the Austrians want this.

You said that if you become president, you would not give the task of forming the government to the FPOE. What are your reasons? Is there any room for maneuver?

I will use on this occasion my prerogatives as President of the Republic, no more no less. The Austrian constitution does not provide for an automatic mechanism according to which the head of the majority party has the right to form a government. The FPOE cannot obtain an absolute majority [vote by proportional representation]. If the FPOE gets around 30 percent, this still leaves 70 percent opposed. In terms of content, I consider it critical that a President of the Republic checks whether a government program reflects the Austrian constitution and fundamental European values. I have an extreme skepticism against a government led by a party that seeks the destruction of the united Europe.

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