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Austria's Close Call

How the Election Revealed a Disappearing Political Center

Presidential candidates Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (R) and Alexander Van der Bellen (L) who is supported by the Greens party in Vienna, Austria, May 22, 2016. Heinz-Peter Bader / Reuters

On May 23, Norbert Hofer, a candidate from Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, lost the presidential election by only 31,000 votes. His strong showing surprised observers who believed that a prosperous free-market democracy such as Austria could never come so close to electing a far-right head of state. It would have been the first far-right head of state elected in Europe since World War II.

Although Alexander Van der Bellen, the 72-year-old former chief of the left-leaning Green Party, triumphed in the end, it was striking that he, like Hofer, was something of a protest candidate. He, too, strongly repudiated Austria’s centrist ruling parties, which have shared power for six decades, by campaigning against the entrenched system of patronage which he claimed had corrupted Austrian democracy over the years.

Van der Bellen and Hofer’s tactic worked well. In the first round of elections, held on April 24, candidates of the mainstream parties, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, won only 22 percent of the vote. That led to a tight runoff between the various far-right and Green candidates, with many moderate Austrians rallying around Van der Bellen to block the Freedom Party’s path to the presidential palace.

The rise of the Freedom Party fits, in some ways, the broader trend of growing right-wing populism in Europe, which has been largely fueled by the influx of refugees into the continent. But the specific origins, and at times the messages, of these right-wing parties are quite different. Poland’s Law and Justice Party, for example, emerged in the early 2000s, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, during an initial spurt of right-wing nationalism in central Europe that also strengthened Viktor Orban’s Fidesz movement in Hungary during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Alternative for Germany, meanwhile, emerged in recent years as an anti-euro, anti-immigrant party. And the Danish People’s Party and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands proclaim that unfettered immigration will destroy their generous welfare states.

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