Photographer: Alex Domanski/Getty Images

Austrians Fearing Worse Future May Decide Too-Close-to-Call Vote

  • Freedom Party’s Hofer seeks protest votes against immigration
  • Unemployment, incomes also factor into presidential election

Austrians are choosing between a nationalist and a liberal university economist in western Europe’s first presidential election since Americans picked Donald Trump for the White House.

Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer.

Photographer: Lisi Niesner/Bloomberg

After a year of campaigning, an annulled election and ballot defects that delayed the rerun, the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer and former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen are running for head of state on Sunday. Either way, the contest will break a 70-year hold on the post by the Social Democrats and the Austrian People’s Party. Austria is casting a “protest vote” against the status quo, said Sylvia Kritzinger, a political scientist at the University of Vienna.

Diverging visions of Austria’s future have polarized the nation of 8.6 million people heading into the vote, which polls suggest is too close to call. Most Hofer supporters expect their lives to worsen even if he wins, prompting comparisons to U.S. voters drawn by Trump’s campaign pledge to “make America great again.”

Hofer built his campaign for the mostly ceremonial post on voters’ anxiety about immigration, tapping into rifts on race, religion and economic inequality. On his website, he pledges to protect Christians -- “so help me God” -- and urges voters to “raise the flag.” Van der Bellen, who taught economics at Vienna University for almost two decades, campaigned on European unity and appealed for “togetherness.” 

Rising unemployment and resentment over welfare benefits for new arrivals are also motivating Hofer’s constituency. “Immigration doesn’t entail just a single policy aspect,” Kritzinger said. “Economic issues are also driving choices.”

Even before refugee arrivals began to spike in the first half of 2015, the number of jobless Austrians -- particularly young men leaning toward Hofer -- was rising steadily. Unemployment in July reached 6.2 percent, the highest level in at least 21 years, according to Eurostat.

A confluence of other economic indicators show why Austrians might be feeling less well off: property and rental prices have skyrocketed, while inflation-adjusted income has fallen over the last five years.

Last year’s European refugee crisis allowed the Freedom Party to “own the issue of immigration,” Kritzinger said, even after Austria’s Social Democrat-led government eventually tightened border controls and limited arrivals.

The rise of Trump and Hofer, together with the forces driving the U.K. out of the European Union, may continue stalking Europe’s ruling elites.

“After Brexit, after Trump, we’re staring into the abyss and we have to decide now: Do we want to modernize the European project, make it more just and rescue it, or do we risk its existence?,” Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said in Vienna on Tuesday.

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