Austria’s Far Right Sees a Prize Within Reach: The Presidency

Alison Smale, New York Times, November 29, 2016

In his office in Austria’s grand old Parliament, Norbert Hofer, the man who would be Austria’s next president, presents himself as anything but a threat.

He enters with a pronounced limp as a result of a 2003 paragliding accident. He air-kisses a visitor’s hand. He then spends much of the next hour professing that he is not nationalist and certainly not anti-Semitic, insists that he is too young to have anything to do with Nazism and says that he is no part of any populist wave.

Yet Mr. Hofer, 45, also flashes a boyish grin and can hardly help but betray an extra air of confidence these days. In a year of political shocks, this may be the shape of the next.

Mr. Hofer, a leading light in the right-wing Freedom Party, is counting on Austrians to make him the first far-right head of state in post-World War II Europe when they vote on Sunday, the final act in a yearlong tussle that has turned into a contest to mold the fate of the Continent’s heart.

As the vote nears, he is running neck and neck with Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old former economics professor and ex-leader of the Greens party in an election that is a rerun of a contested vote earlier this year.

What has changed in the meantime is that populists, who had already taken hold in neighboring Hungary and Poland, have advanced, too, in France and even Germany. The British have voted to break with the European Union. And Donald J. Trump has been elected president of the United States.

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In Austria, the Freedom Party regularly leads opinion polls, with about one-third of the vote, easily surpassing the mainstream center-left and center-right parties and raising the once unthinkable possibility that the party will not only win the presidency, but soon head the government as well.

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Mr. Hofer, who has picked up on a previously little-noticed provision that could allow the president to dismiss a government or individual ministers, clearly aims to mold policy. He has visited neighboring Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and speaks of forging an alliance of Central and Eastern European nations under Austrian guidance.

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In any case, ties with Mr. Trump are likely to be close. At a Nov. 18 gathering in Vienna, Heinz-Christian Strache, the trained dental technician who leads the Freedom Party, was quite clear about the inspiration provided by Mr. Trump.

“On Dec. 4, the impossible is possible,” Mr. Strache told hundreds of supporters. “We’ve seen it in the U.S., we can do it in Austria. We’re a little cautious here, it’s our style. But if the Americans can do it, we can do it.”

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