A Setback?
Austria Holds Back Populist Tide (for Now)

Europeans dismayed on Sunday by the resounding defeat of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum may have sought solace in another election. In Austria’s presidential re-run, the pro-Europe left won out against far-right contender Norbert Hofer. Reuters:

Austrians’ desire to stay anchored in the European Union outweighed concerns over immigration and security and helped former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen defeat his far-right rival Norbert Hofer in Sunday’s presidential election.

Van der Bellen, whose win bucks a trend of populist victories across Western democracies, had put Britain’s decision to leave the EU at the center of his own campaign, warning voters not to “play with this fire”.

“I will be a pro-European president of Austria open to the world,” Van der Bellen, 72, said in his victory speech.

The defeat of Hofer—a candidate from the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which was founded in 1956 by a former SS officer—is a real setback for the populist tide sweeping Europe. Although Austria’s presidency is a largely ceremonial position, Hofer’s election would have resulted in more calls for early parliamentary elections. That outcome has been averted for now, but Europeans should not feel too complacent. Just as many mistakenly feared that a “No” vote in Italy over the weekend would represent an unambiguous setback for the EU, there is a risk of over-interpreting the Austrian election as a decisive rejection of populism.

The dam has held against euroskeptic populism once again, but future repeats of this now-familiar scenario are by no means assured. As Dalibor Rohac notes, the forces that drove the popularity of FPO show no signs of abating. Current polls show that FPO leads all other contenders for the parliamentary elections currently scheduled for 2018, but which could well take place in the first half of next year if the current “grand coalition” government falls apart. In fact, the head of the Social Democrats and Austria’s current Chancellor Christian Kern has reportedly already started putting out feelers to Freedom Party representatives in the event that his party needs to cooperate with them.

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