Long Dominated by Center, Austria Splinters to Left and Right

Alison Smale, New York Times, May 15, 2016

In Austria, at the very heart of Europe, the center is not holding.

After decades in which Austrian politics was dominated by center-right and center-left parties, voters emphatically rejected both in the first round of the election for a new president. The country–focused, like many others in Europe, on the effects of large-scale immigration–now faces a runoff next Sunday between a far-right, anti-immigration populist, who was the leading vote-getter in the first round, and a former Green Party leader.

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Should the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party, win the presidency, he would be the first right-wing populist to become a head of state in 21st-century Europe.

The forces that vaulted Mr. Hofer into the spotlight are evident across much of the Continent, where many traditional parties in the center are embattled and voters are signaling increased discontent with politics as usual. Austria could be a test case for how far voters will go to demand change as immigration joins with diminished economic security and resentment of entrenched elites to create a combustible political mix.

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Mr. Hofer won 35 percent. Behind him was the former Green Party leader, Alexander Van der Bellen, with 21 percent. There has not been any polling for the runoff, but all indications are that the race will be tight.

The tone of the political debate has added to the fears of many Austrians about the migrants who entered the country last year as hundreds of thousands of people fled Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations for the security and prosperity of Europe. The new arrivals, many of them Muslim, are regularly portrayed in tabloids, and by Mr. Hofer and his party, as freeloaders bringing crime, rape and even murder to this country of 8.4 million people.

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Just how much influence a far-right president might exert in Austria is hotly debated. The office has been seen as largely ceremonial. But powers laid out in the 1929 Constitution, still in effect, enable the president to dismiss a government or refuse to swear in a controversial leader.

Mr. Hofer and the Freedom Party have campaigned on what their posters call “a new understanding of the office.” Mr. Hofer has said he would give the government six months to a year to fix what he sees as Austria’s woes–migrants, crime, rising unemployment–and then dismiss it if necessary.

“We all missed this point in the Constitution,” because since 1945 it had not been used, said Mr. Rauscher, the columnist for Der Standard. He voiced a widespread apprehension that any attempt by Mr. Hofer to sway the government could drive Austria in the illiberal direction seen in neighboring Hungary, Poland and Slovakia–all once linked with Austria in the Hapsburg Empire.

Mr. Hofer is appealing to voters with a brand of 19th-century Teutonic nationalism, saying Germans and Austrians should draw on it to fight the Islamic State. He also rails against the division of Tyrol, one of Austria’s states, from the northern Italian region known as South Tyrol. He told a Tyrolean rally last year that the border “was unjust, is unjust and will remain so” as long as it stands.

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