Austria Rocked by Populist Party's Surge in Presidency Vote

  • Freedom Party candidate says he may fire government if elected
  • Coalition candidates eliminated ahead of May 22 run-off ballot

Norbert Hofer.

Photographer: Robert Jaeger/AFP via Getty Images

Austria’s governing coalition was thrown into turmoil after its candidates were humiliated in the first round of presidential elections by the Freedom Party, a nationalist force that took the most votes following a campaign that played on discontent with the handling of the refugee crisis.

The Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer, 45, who placed first with 35 percent of the first-round ballots on Sunday, said he may fire the current government or veto some of its decisions if elected, raising the stakes for the May 22 runoff. Hofer will run against Alexander van der Bellen, 72, a candidate backed by the opposition Green party, who took 21 percent, according to official results.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

“This government won’t have an easier time with me, but Austria will have it better,” Hofer said in an interview with Austrian public broadcaster ORF Sunday night. “There’s always the option to dismiss the government if, after talks and efforts, it’s not getting better.”

While the Austrian president has a largely ceremonial role, he or she can dismiss the government and call fresh elections. Hofer has said he would also refuse to sign off on selected laws, such as a planned free-trade agreement between the European Union and the U.S., and that he may accompany Chancellor Werner Faymann to EU summits if elected.

“This result could be the start of a dynamic in which the coalition breaks down by itself or give the president a reason to act,” said Anton Pelinka, a professor of political science at Central European University in Budapest.

Anti-Establishment

The outcome underscores the anti-establishment mood among voters in a region still grappling with the worst refugee crisis since World War II. In neighboring Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval rating has plunged to the lowest level of her third term after admitting about 1 million asylum seekers last year. In Sweden, Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Loefven’s government is suffering record low poll numbers amid the biggest inflow of refugees in the country’s history.

Austria’s two main parties, which clung to a majority in the last national elections in 2013 after having run the country for most of the past 70 years, have seen approval ratings slump as they flip-flopped on the migration issue. The government’s inconsistency added to simmering domestic discontent about rising unemployment and economic stagnation.

The presidential candidates running for Faymann’s Social Democrats and Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner’s People’s Party took 11 percent each, and were eliminated from the run-off. They managed to beat only Richard Lugner, an octogenarian shopping-mall operator and socialite famous for his appearances at Vienna’s Opera Ball together with celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

The runoff between Hofer and van der Bellen, who represent the opposite ends of the spectrum on handling the influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, underscores the divisions in the electorate. German online bookmaker Bet-At-Home.com AG gave equal odds of victory to both politicians in next month’s vote.

‘Zero Immigration’

About a tenth of Germany’s size, Austria took in more than 90,000 refugees in 2015, before reversing course this year by imposing a cap on the influx and fortifying borders. Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said in January that the solution “can only be zero immigration.”

Austria has flirted with the Freedom Party before. Under the leadership of Joerg Haider, the party took 27 percent of the vote in the 1999 federal election to set up a coalition with the People’s Party the following year. Haider, who didn’t serve in the government, later left to form another party, leaving the way open for Strache to assume the leadership.

Austria’s Freedom Party is in the same European Parliament grouping as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the Dutch anti-EU, anti-Islam Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders.

While the movement’s rise continues, Austria is grappling with the financial aftermath of Haider’s rule in Carinthia, the country’s southernmost province. During his 11-year tenure, the local government issued 25 billion euros ($28 billion) of guarantees for Hypo Alpe-Adria-Bank International AG, fueling the bank’s breakneck expansion in the former Yugoslavia.

Today, what remains of the failed lender is being wound down by Heta Asset Resolution AG in the first application of Europe’s new bank resolution rules. Creditors have turned to Carinthia for full repayment on the securities, citing the guarantees given by the Freedom Party government that guaranteed loans amounting to about five times the provincial budget. A solution has yet to be found.

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