Austria's presidential election Sunday could bring victory for far-right candidate

A conservative candidate for Austria's presidency who opposes immigrants, Muslims and a proposed transatlantic free trade agreement may win Sunday’s election in a vote that could herald a lurch to the right across Europe.

If victorious, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party would be the first far-right head of state elected in a western European country since the end of World War II. 

The 45-year-old former aeronautical engineer is considered the front-runner after upsetting candidates from the country's two major parties, who finished fourth and fifth in the first-round election last month, by winning 35% of the vote. He is favored to defeat independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, who finished second with 21% of the vote.

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Hofer’s stunning rise to the pinnacle of power reflects rapid changes in Austria, a nation of 8.7 million people. The country has undergone a major shift to the right in the last year by first welcoming more than 90,000 refugees fleeing war and poverty to slamming its borders shut.

The collapse in the April 24 first round of voting by the ruling Social Democrats and their conservative People’s Party allies led a government upheaval this month when Chancellor Werner Faymann abruptly resigned after more than seven years in power. A new chancellor, Christian Kern, the former chairman of the national railways, was sworn into office this week.

“The politicians currently running the country are in the process of destroying, in just a few short months, everything that our parents and grandparents have built up over decades,” Hofer said, referring to the influx of refugees that he has railed so tirelessly against in his campaign speeches and interviews.

Some analysts said a victory by Hofer on Sunday  could galvanize far-right movements across Europe. Austria could become a bellwether for electoral shifts to the right in France, Germany, Britain and elsewhere in the months ahead, they said.

But it could also tarnish Austria’s image – an important consideration for a country heavily dependent on foreign trade and tourism. 

“It’s similar to what [U.S. presidential candidate Donald] Trump has done,” Dieter Segert, a political scientist at the University of Vienna, said in an interview. “He seems to be standing up for the little guy. He focused on middle-class white voters who feel like they’re losing out and feel threatened by the migrants, refugees and globalization.

“Hofer’s feeding off a sense of frustration and positioned himself as someone who is ready to take on the political classes that aren’t looking out for their interests any more,” Segert said.

Right-wing governments opposed to European Union efforts to take in refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East and Asia are already firmly in power to Austria’s east in Hungary as well as to north in the Czech Republic and Poland.

But growing disenchantment over the migrant crisis has also fueled far-right movements in Germany, where the Alternative for Germany party had a strong showing in a recent state election, and in France, where Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front is leading the ruling Socialists in opinion polls a year before beleaguered President Francois Hollande tries to win re-election. In Britain, the immigration issue is also strengthening the far right and could help turn a referendum next month on whether the country should leave the European Union.

“It could be a dangerous precedent for all of Europe if Hofer wins on Sunday,” said Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University and a European authority on the far-right. “Europe is in a pretty fragile condition at the moment and there would be a spillover effect for voters in Germany, France and Britain if Hofer and his anti-democratic party wins.”

The office of president in Austria is largely ceremonial. But among the president’s powers, as spelled out in a constitution from 1929, is the authority to dismiss a government or refuse to swear in a new leader. Although those powers were never used by center-left or center-right presidents before, Hofer has said he would bring “a new understanding” of the presidential powers with him if he wins.

It isn’t the first presidential election in Austria to draw unwanted international attention. In 1986 former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was elected president as voters defied protests from abroad following revelations that he had served in the Wehrmacht as a young officer and translator near sites of Nazi war crimes in the Balkans.

Hofer has vowed to put “Austria first” and “stop the invasions of Muslims.”  Unemployment in Austria has doubled to around 10% since the last parliamentary elections in 2013. Hofer says that “things are going downhill in Austria and the country needs someone who will do something about it.”

Peter Filzmaier, a political science professor at the Donau University in Krems, said he doubts Hofer will dare to do anything as radical as dismiss the government two years before the next scheduled election in 2018. But he said the phenomenon of his electoral strength in Austria will carry over to other countries across Europe.

“There are a lot of angry, disappointed people out there,” Filzmaier said in an interview. “Like Trump, he’s got support from the losers of the modernization process. They’ve got lower incomes or are finding it harder to find a job or a good job. They don’t think there’s enough national pride. I think the mood in Austria symbolizes the mood in a lot of European countries and if he wins there will be discussions about the problem in a lot of places across Europe.”

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Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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