The law-and-order candidate of Austria’s right-wing party swept the first round of presidential elections yesterday, gathering more than 35 per cent of the vote for the party’s best ever result and leaving the other five candidates far behind. Among the losers were the government coalition candidates, reflecting deep voter rejection and political uncertainty ahead.
The triumph by Norbert Hofer eclipses his Freedom Party’s best previous showing – more than 27 per cent support in elections that decided Austria’s membership in the European Union.
With his declared willingness to challenge the governing coalition of center-left Social Democrats and centrist People’s Party, Hofer might push for new elections should he win the 22 May runoff in hopes that his Freedom Party will triumph at the polls.
With 98 per cent of ballots counted, Hofer was far ahead of Alexander van der Bellen of the Greens party who ran as an independent. He polled just over 21 per cent support and will challenge Hofer in the second round.
Independent Irmgard Griss came in third. At just under 20 per cent she was still ahead of People’s Party candidate Andreas Khol and Social Democrat Rudolf Hundstorfer, both hovering around 10 per cent. Political outsider Richard Lugner was last, with just over 2 per cent.
Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache hailed the “historic event” that he said reflected massive “voter dissatisfaction” with the traditional political landscape. Still, Van der Bellen remained in the running for the second round, with many of those who voted for other candidates likely to swing their support behind him in hopes he will defeat Hofer, and with it deal a blow to the Freedom Party.
Hofer’s triumph was significant nonetheless, and in line with recent polls showing Freedom Party popularity. Driven by concerns over Europe’s migrant crisis, support for his party has surged to 32 per cent compared with just over 20 per cent for each of the governing parties.
Voters were unhappy with the Social Democrats and the People’s Party even before the migrant crisis last year forced their coalition government to swing from open borders to tough asylum restrictions. Bickering over key issues – most recently tax, pension and education reform – has fed perceptions of political stagnation.
Even while the mainstream parties digest their candidates’ disastrous showing, a win by Hofer in the runoff could presage even more turbulent political waters. As president, Hofer has threatened to dismiss the government coalition and call a new national election.