The third round of the Austrian presidential election left Alexander van der Bellen (VdB) the winner. Contrary to all expectations, he beat Norbert Hofer with 53.2% to 46.2% of the vote. How could this surprising result come about in the age of Trump?
This was an unusual election. The Austrian presidential election is normally a two part election, but in this case, because of massive irregularities in the second round, the supreme court ordered a rerun of the second round vote. (In that case the vote got flipped from the populist right to the hard left after they counted the postal ballots.) Then, somehow, between the second round and the third round, Hofer lost ground.
FPÖ had a massive mobilization problem during the election. While the second round of voting ended with VdB ahead by 30,000 votes, the third election had him ahead by several hundred thousand. Many of the FPÖ voters who previously voted Hofer chose VdB instead or stayed home. Here is a good graphical overview of who voted what.
Why? OK, the pile-on was incredible. VdB, the Green Party candidate, was supported by almost every other Austrian political party. After the candidates of the socialists and conservatives were defeated in the first round of the presidential election by Norbert Hofer, they switched their support to the VdB. Even Irmgard Griss, of the neoliberal party NEOS, did not back Hofer in the 3rd round.
VdB was also massively supported by groups of the non-parliamentary left, e.g. students and leftwing screwballs. They organized a second election campaign with numerous demonstrations, lectures and events, which led to an enormous polarization among the electorate, and they were able to paint a picture of VdB as being the candidate against the "Nazis, racists and and the right". The FPÖ, on the other hand, and unlike Trump, ignored the patriotic civil society groups, such as the Identitarians, leaving the field uncontested.
Here on the ground there was an impression that VdB's election campaign was superior to Norbert Hofer's. This made it very difficult for the FPÖ to effectively counter the campaign against their candidate. The FPÖ's long-standing failure to build up its own alternative media and social media presence stands out on this point. Trump’s campaign was far more effective in this regard.
The FPÖ did not succeed in controlling the election campaign in the third round, despite favorable political issues (mass immigration, EU, security). While the Greens created an illusion of "last-minute patriotism," even wrapping themselves in the mantle of populism (like Trump), the FPÖ election campaign was, above all, tepid. They kept veering towards consensus. That they couldn’t mobilize their own voters is not entirely surprising.
In absolute terms, Hofer lost 300,000 votes compared to the first round. While VdB won a total of 145,000 new voters, Hofer lost 37,000 to his opponent, not least because more than 70,000 Hofer voters stayed home in the third round: a classic mobilization problem. The Green Party candidate picked up votes mainly in rural areas and from former ÖVP voters. This is significant, because the ÖVP are the Christian Conservative voters, and according to the institute SORA, they went 55% in the end for the left-wing, some would even say extreme left-wing, Green Party candidate.
What could Hofer have done differently in the months between the second and third round? He certainly could have concentrated more on the topics that distinguished him from VdB, globalization and establishment criticism, and portrayed VdB as someone that the ÖVP voters could only see as beyond the pale.
Precisely because he did not succeed in highlighting the importance of the election in this third round of voting, Hofer's positions could often hardly be distinguished from VdB's. And Hofer withdrew numerous popular demands or made them subject to the election.
It was a tough loss. The bookies had Hofer ahead, a populist Trump had just pulled off a win in November, and no one on our side thought Austria could stomach VdB. Any electoral post mortem is subject to opinion and interpretation - still there is a tendency on the side of the FPÖ and also in the patriotic camp to avoid addressing the defeat squarely. They were ahead, and they lost ground. How do they pull it off next time?
The same day we saw Hofer lose, we saw the populists in Italy with a clear win. While Austria isn’t Italy (or the United Kingdom or the US), there are opportunities to compare recent wins by populists in several Western countries. They were all very tough campaigns, but also ones in which the winners offered both optimism and change. Die Presse concludes their voter analysis suggesting VdB won in a few categories, most importantly among women, and also stating that the VdB voters expressed more optimism.
2018 National Council elections are around the corner. A lot of people want the FPÖ succeed, and that means digging a little harder for answers to establishment strategies to keep them from forming the next government.
The original German follows below.
Alexander Markovics is an Austrian writer and sometimes muckraker who lives in Vienna. Background in history and politics. You can read more of his fine work (in German) here, or
follow him on Twitter: Follow @AlexanderMarko8
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