Relatively clear electoral victory for the Green candidate in Austria– surveys show that the FPÖ remains the strongest force ahead of the National Council elections
Austria has elected a new President: the winner is Alexander Van der Bellen. After the election was declared invalid in May due to various procedural irregularities and the date set for September was postponed when faulty postal voting ballot papers were discovered, the current status provides no grounds for contest so that the result can be deemed final – an objection can however be lodged up to 22 December. The election of the independent Green Party-backed candidate to the Vienna Hofburg has put a slight damper on the recent wave of victory enjoyed by the populist parties. According to projections made by the ORF – the postal votes will be counted in the course of today – Van der Bellen received 53.3% of the votes. This represents a surprisingly strong win over FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer, compared with the previous presidential run-off that was declared invalid. The wider political establishment is likely to breathe a sigh of relief, as a win by Hofer would have resulted in the first right-wing populist head of state in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Van der Bellen’s election is expected to put an end to Austrian foreign policy’s greater leaning towards the EU-sceptic stance of the Eastern European Visegrád states, which would have raised the potential for tension on a pan-European level. Concerns are likely to have eased about the dismissal of the government, which would have become more acute in case of a win by Hofer.
Nonetheless, the spotlight will probably remain on the instability of the grand coalition between the SPÖ and ÖVP, with Chancellor Kern (SPÖ) at the helm. A common agreement has been reached on only a few things – a recent majority agreement on a tax-free allowance of EUR 100 for Austrian pensioners was vilified by the Federation of Austrian Industries as „an electoral sweetener at the expense of the general public“ – and major advances such as a vital pension reform cannot be expected. At the same time, Kern, who only took charge from his unsuccessful predecessor in mid-2016, remains under great pressure. Unemployment in the Alpine republic climbed to a record 8.6% in November (based on national definitions). The opponents of the FPÖ will therefore have little time for a breather let alone a celebration. With regard to the forthcoming National Council election to be held in 2018 or earlier, the Freedom Party clearly remains the strongest force (approx. 35% of the votes), followed by the SPÖ (27%) and ÖVP (18%). The latter could help Strache (currently the head of the FPÖ) come to power as future chancellor – the FPÖ will therefore remain part of Austria’s political landscape in the future and a serious contender on the European stage.