The results of the re-vote of the Austrian presidential elections last Sunday come to many as a surprise. A tight race between Alexander Van der Bellen, former leader of the Austrian Green Party (Die Grünen), and Norbert Hofer, member of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), was expected. However, while Norbert Hofer was defeated by only 31,000 votes during the first run-off in May, this time it was a clear victory for his opponent, Van der Bellen. Warnings about the consequences of an allegedly unpredictable and Eurosceptic right-wing president, which have dominated the media landscape over the past months, seem to have taken effect.
Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory is hailed as the victory of freedom and reason. Norbert Hofer’s opponents from around the world feel delighted and relieved. ‘Thank God!’, read a sign in the crowd of Van der Bellen’s supporters after the results of the elections were announced. The loudest sigh of relief can be heard from Brussels, which trembled in fear that a right-wing president in Austria might cause a domino effect, which could lead to a surge of support for populist movements across Europe.
Dark scenarios – such as that Austria might be pushed into isolation (as was the case in 2000, when the EU imposed sanctions on Austria after the conservative People’s Party formed a coalition government with the Freedom Party) or that Hofer might initiate an ‘Öxit’ (as locals call an Austrian Brexit) – have been continuously articulated and instrumentalised in order to caution against a right-wing president.
We do not know for sure to what extent this narrative, as well as events such as the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election to the presidency, really influenced the decisions of Austrians. Still, the motives of Van der Bellen’s voters suggest that fear of a right-wing president did play a role. According to a survey conducted by the Institute for Social Research and Consulting (SORA) in cooperation with the Institute for Strategic Analyses (ISA), 42% of Van der Bellen’s voters cited the wish to prevent Hofer’s victory as their primary motivation to vote for him. Only 34% voted for him because they wanted him to be Austria’s president.
The survey also shows that the majority (90%) of those who would currently vote for the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) supported Van der Bellen. 55% of those who declare themselves as supporters of the People’s Party (ÖVP) voted for Alexander Van der Bellen, 45% of them for Norbert Hofer.
As exemplified by the survey, Hofer appealed to many because he addressed the problems and needs of the ‘little man’. The main reasons given by those who voted for Hofer were that he ‘understands the worries of people like me’ ( a ‘very important’ motivation for 55%), his competence (55%), and his opposition to the political establishment (54%). For 52% an important motivation was the belief that he would bring about change in Austria. In comparison, among the top motivations of Alexander Van der Bellen’s electorate were the belief that he could better represent Austria abroad (a ‘very important’ reason for 67%) as well as his pro-European attitude (65%).
The Freedom Party’s anti-establishment attitude is largely responsible for its popularity, which has been steadily rising since 1996, when – lead by Jörg Haider – it achieved its first best result. More recently, during the last legislative elections in 2013, it gained around a fifth of the parliament seats, becoming the third largest party. It is expected to score even higher results during the parliamentary elections in 2018.
During the campaign, Van der Bellen announced that he would not appoint a right-wing candidate as chancellor if the Freedom Party gained the majority of votes in the next parliamentary elections. It remains to be seen whether he will in fact make use of this right that the constitution grants him. Certainly, this would exacerbate the domestic situation and risk both political and social instability. Anton Pelinka, professor of political science at the University of Vienna and an expert on the Austrian political system, warned that blocking the formation of government would trigger a constitutional crisis.
In light of the strength of Norbert Hofer’s party, as well as the upcoming parliamentary elections, Van der Bellen’s battle has just begun. His main task will be to work towards the reconciliation of the political elite and the unification of Austrian society.
Boundless euphoria must be now replaced by action. Van der Bellen’s victory will not simply dissolve the success of the Austrian Freedom Party, of which Norbert Hofer is a member. The voices of Hofer’s electorate must be heard and taken seriously. Even more so, because this electorate is as diversified as Austrian society itself. After all, it is important to remember that first- and second-generation migrants constitute a significant part of the Freedom Party’s electorate. Therefore, discrediting Hofer as an anti-immigrant and xenophobic extremist, who wishes nothing more than to see the EU watered down and all immigrants deported, only fuels tensions. Instead, the needs and concerns of his supporters – with regard to current social and economic developments in the country as well as Austria’s place in Europe and the challenges Europe is facing – must be given attention.
Moreover, a campaign that has seen so many mutual accusations, insults, and offences has demonstrated that the current state of political discourse must be improved. We must learn to debate with each other openly, using constructive arguments instead of aggressive language. A culture of debate, based on mutual respect and understanding, is needed now more than ever.
 Survey conducted by SORA and ISA, ‘Elections of the Federal President of the Republic of Austria 2016: re-vote’, available at: http://www.sora.at/index.php?id=451&L=1.
 The Federal Ministry of the Interior http://wahl13.bmi.gv.at/
 Interview from 23 May 2016 https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/oesterreich-wahl-interview-101.html