Norbert Hofer of the Freedom party ran a campaign that included attacks on Islam, Muslim immigrants and refugees. Photograph: Alex Domanski/Getty Images
Despite a year of often bitter campaigning, Austrians turned out in significant numbers to reject the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in a rerun of the country’s presidential elections. For those worried about Europe’s turn towards populist rightwing forces, Austria’s election outcome was heartening.
Alexander van der Bellen, the left-leaning, pro-Europe moderate, won by about 3% more of the vote than he did in May’s annulled election. But according to Austrian voters who responded to a Guardian callout, despite Van der Bellen sweeping to victory, the outcome does not signal an end to the threat from far-right forces.
“It’s just like the Trump phenomenon in the US. Non-urban, less educated, male voters go for Hofer’s Freedom party (FPÖ). Hofer is in fact even worse than his image. His ideas are racist, sexist and fascist,” says 46-year-old Florian, who owns an advertising agency and lives in Vienna.
Florian hopes Austria can remain openminded, cosmopolitan and tolerant, but says there is an underlying sympathy for far-right views in certain parts of society. “There is a latent sympathy for fascist ideas in the population, especially among older people. The FPÖ has a very powerful and efficient network of various rightwing online media supporting them, in combination with their own extremely successful social media work,” he says.
Markus, 30, an engineer who lives in Vienna, is a strong supporter of Van der Bellen, but fears that this is just the first of many political battles within the country. “I hope that after a year of political shifts to the right, there are still more people who are not driven by fear and hate, fear of the future and hate against minorities.
“But according to opinion polls, the FPÖ would lead if there were parliamentary elections soon, which is very likely the case. I would vote for SPÖ [the Social Democratic party of Austria], mainly because of the new chancellor … It seems possible that there is still a chance of modern leftwing politics despite all the hate and xenophobia in our country. Even though he too has his populist moments, I see him as way less dangerous than rightwing populism,” he says.
In May, Van der Bellen defeated Hofer by 50.3% to 49.7%, only narrowly preventing Austria from becoming the first EU country to elect a far-right head of state. This time, although the results swung in greater numbers for the left-leaning candidate, the election reveals a great rift running through Austrian society.
Kate, 27, an occupational therapist from Vienna, is concerned that a similar show of unity against the far right may not play out in parliamentary elections. “It is a great relief; the first good election results this year I know of. It is especially nice to live in a city were Van der Bellen won in all districts. However, this election is different as it only had two candidates, none of them from the established formerly big parties, and people from all different political parties had to choose. Next time it will be the choice between different parties rather than two persons,” she says.
Although the role is mainly ceremonial, a win for Hofer would have boosted FPÖ hopes for the next presidential elections, despite the party’s recent history of praising the “proper labour policies” of Adolf Hitler.
Sascha, 30, a teacher who was born in Vienna but now lives in Warsaw, feels let down by the mainstream parties. “Given the events of the past six months – Brexit, the US election and gains by the AfD in Germany – I feel even more convinced that Van der Bellen, and a temperate voice, is necessary for the current climate in Europe and the world.
“The main parties have failed and perhaps the entire establishment must be renewed. The mainstream parties don’t reflect the realities of many voters, myself included,” she says.
Sascha says an overhaul of the political system is needed before more people turn towards extreme parties.
The SPÖ and the ÖVP [Austrian People’s party] have governed Austria for more than 60 years, and voters who responded to our callout said they were frustrated and unsatisfied with the work of this coalition. It is this frustration that led some to vote in favour of Hofer, as a warning to the country’s mainstream parties.
“I’m a socialist, and believe in equal rights for all. But I want to give a sign to the parties of ÖVP [APP] and SPÖ that they must start working together again to stop the far right and the far left telling us how we have to to live and what we have to think,” says Stefan, 35, an architect who lives in Vienna. “The only way to show them is to let them realise that it is not in 10 years they will lose their power in parliament – it could be next year. It’s the last opportunity to do that with the smallest consequences,” he says.
Van der Bellen’s second campaign was passionately pro-European, with posters proclaiming that a vote for him meant “no to Öxit”. Analysts have suggested thatthis key issue swung the election for Van der Bellen.
“I believe that the conservative ÖVP will enforce its role as a pro-EU party in the coming [parliamentary] elections. So far the conservatives’ strategy was to take over rightwing issues … This election has proven that Öxit is not very popular,” says Florian.
“Just like in many other European countries, nationalism is extremely en vogue as a consequence of globalism and the refugee issue, as well as an answer to the supposed liberal political-correctness generation. Nevertheless, the success of the FPÖ is quite surprising in a country that is one of the safest and wealthiest in Europe,” he says. “Maybe people are a bit bored after 70 years of peace.”