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Brexit And Trump: Why Austrians Voted Against The Far-Right

09/12/2016 16:23
Alexander Koerner via Getty Images

"My faith in Austria has not died yet."

"I am so incredibly happy."

My friends back home in Austria sent me these messages the minute it became clear that Alexander Van der Bellen was going to be Austria's next president.

They felt a sense of superiority that the nationalist Freedom Party's candidate did not succeed after appealing against the first election result in May. "They severely undermined democracy and the confidence in government institutions. It would be alarming if they would have been rewarded for that."

Many believe right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer's success would have sparked an anti-Semitic, discriminatory and racist climate. An Austria where it is legitimate to stir up hatred against migrants and question press freedom.

Not only Austrians but the whole of Europe breathed a huge sigh of relief when right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer conceded, and former Green Party chairman Van der Bellen stressed that he wanted to start building bridges right away.

Van der Bellen won with an estimated margin of 7% (or 300,000 votes) - whereas back in May he only led with 1%, or 30,000 votes. He hardly lost voters since the first election and won over 160,000 non-voters and more than 70,000 who voted for Hofer before.

It might have been an act of revenge by many voters, who turned away from Hofer after the Freedom Party appealed against the first run-off. Maybe it was Hofer's recent allegations against Van der Bellen, calling him a communist and a liar, or even the viral video of a holocaust survivor pledging against voting for a far-right candidate that were crucial for Hofer's loss.

Personally, I did not believe Van der Bellen would succeed. Most polls indicated it was the anti-EU and anti-immigrant 45-year-old engineer who would take Austria's highest diplomatic office. If we've learnt anything this year, it's that we can't trust polls.

It was a nerve-wracking day, a nerve-wracking year even, with the annulation of the result in May and yet another election re-run in September that had to be postponed due to problems with the glue used in postal ballot papers.

That's not even taking into account the Brexit vote and Trump's election less than a month ago. Everything pointed in the "far right" direction for December 4. This victory, however, is considered a "liberal backlash" against this year's historic votes internationally.

With the whole world watching a nation that is in some cases only known for The Sound of Music and the Alps, Austrians undoubtedly sent a clear pro-European signal. They have shown that they have had enough of nationalist and populist politics this year. Yet still the fact remains that about 46% of voters supported a right-wing candidate.

Was it fear or was it hope that led to a Green victory with a margin of victory that managed to surpass that of Austria's previous president, Heinz Fischer, 12 years ago?

"Fear. Fear could have been one of the main reasons that many voters chose Van der Bellen. They did not want that image internationally", says Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper der Standard in a TV interview. Indeed, many VdB-voters voted for him as the lesser of the two evils. They were worried about what a president Hofer would mean for their future.

That's supported by a survey carried out by the social research institute SORA, indicating that 73% of VdB-voters felt optimistic about the future of Austria's quality of life, whereas 70% of Hofer-voters felt negative about future prospects.

It has been an election between pro-EU and anti-EU, liberal and far-right. A presidential campaign, that not only split the country but also families to their core with 12 months of campaigning, TV debates, threats, accusations and fear.

The battle "against a clear sense of right wing populism"- as German vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel said- has been won. For now, it's time to build bridges, to reunite a nation that has found itself torn apart politically.

A nation whose chancellor is fielded by the centre-left Social Democrats, whose president is the former leader of the left Green party and whose leading party in opinion polls is the right-wing Freedom party, with roughly one-third support leading up to the parliamentary elections due in 2018.

"I want people to say: He's our president", Van der Bellen said right after being elected, hoping to reconcile the nation's split within the next six years. Sooner rather than later, preferably.

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