By Herbert Vytiska
(EurActiv) — Will the political situation in the United States have an impact on European elections? Austria’s rerun of its presidential election could well provide the first acid test, ahead of crucial votes in France and Germany next year.
In three weeks, Austria will go to the polls once more to decide whether independent candidate Alexander van der Bellen or far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer should be the new president.
In the first installment back in June, the result of which was annulled by the country’s constitutional court due to postal vote anomalies, the margin between the two men was just 0.6%. Over the summer, there was little movement in the opinion polls between the two candidates.
Much like his far-right counterparts across Europe, FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache declared himself a fan of President-Elect Donald Trump, meaning the bandwagon is rapidly filling up. Strache has already pimped Hofer has a potential middleman between the US and Russia.
However, the uncertainties that have already emerged regarding Trump’s forthcoming stint in the Oval Office may convince the electorate to stick with the traditional parties and figures, rather than plumping to elect Europe’s first far-right head of state since the Second World War.
Pollsters have already become more cautious. No one has been too eager to predict what the outcome of the rerun will be, especially since Trump’s win defied most of the forecasts that were made before the 8 November vote. Both Austrian candidates are currently hovering around the 50% mark.
Much like the US, Austrians are unlikely to declare themselves in favour of the right-wing populist option when asked for the purposes of polling. It is only when they are face to face with the ballot paper that the truth comes out.
The FPÖ is currently enjoying a lead in the polls ahead of the country’s established SPÖ and ÖVP parties. In Austria, as well as several other European nations, the political climate seems to be directed against the so-called establishment.
Hofer has tried to capitalise on this feeling, while Van der Bellen has stuck with a tried and tested formula.
On the back of measures taken by the Austrian government, immigration is no longer the hot topic it was before the summer and is not the catalyst it once was for the FPÖ. Nevertheless, integration will still play a significant role in people’s election choice.
The outcome of the election, which ultimately will only appoint a mostly symbolic president, is still eagerly awaited, given the continued survival of the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition government. The failure of the SPÖ candidate to make it past the first round of elections was a major factor in the resignation of the previous chancellor, Werner Faymann.
Not a week passes without the two ruling parties disagreeing about some issue or another. While it is in neither party’s interests to terminate their arrangement, there is nevertheless some speculation that the presidential vote could trigger an early election.
A theory has persisted in Austria that in order to prevent Strache from competing for the chancellorship, Hofer has to be made president. The argument goes that, traditionally, voters do not want to give power over the government and the presidency to the same party. This would go some way towards explaining why neither of the ruling coalition’s candidates made it past the first hurdle.
However, Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner doesn’t buy this way of thinking and is concerned about the alpine republic’s international image. Recently he said that Van der Bellen would be “the better vote” for Austria.