In the re-run of Austria’s presidential election, victory was sweeter the second time around for Alexander Van der Bellen, defying expectations on Sunday to defeat the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer with an increased margin of victory.
With a Hofer win, the press had feared the “Trump-Effekt”—that the tide of far-right populism sweeping Europe and the United States would drown Austria too, resulting in the European Union’s first neo-fascist head of state. But Van der Bellen won on a clear pro-European, anti-extremist platform, and in the campaign’s final days, Hofer was forced to deny he desired a referendum on Öxit—an Austrian exit from the EU.
Van der Bellen, an economics professor and former Green Party leader, captured 53.3 percent of the vote—up three percentage points versus the first time the election was run in May. Van der Bellen won the votes of 169,000 people who didn’t turn out in May plus 77,000 who switched from Hofer, pushing him over the top. He performed strongly with women, the college-educated, and public sector employees, as well as in the cities and the prosperous western state of Vorarlberg.
“Van der Bellen brought not only convinced supporters to the polls, but beyond that mobilized all those who voted on the basis of the mantra, ‘the lesser of two evils,’” Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, editor of the liberal newspaper Der Standard, wrote. “This is a success for Alexander Van der Bellen, because he stands for human rights, because he has clearly said he would actively oppose as president an extreme right-wing and Europe-splitting agenda,” the Austrian-Israeli novelist Doron Rabinovici said.
Van der Bellen’s victory is a rare triumph for European liberalism and anti-fascism in 2016—but fundamentally it does not change the underlying conditions in Austria. It does nothing for the gradual erosion of the old left-right two-party hegemony nor the nativism brought out in a great many Austrians by the refugee crisis. Legislative elections must be held by October 2018, and for now, it remains likely that the FPÖ will come out on top.
Moreover, while populist nativism was defeated in Austria on Sunday, we still have the prospect of President Trump, while the specters of Geert Wilders and Beppe Grillo, Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry loom large over continental Europe. For the far-right, Austria is rather a bump in the road or the beginning of the end—time will tell—but it would certainly be a cruel joke of history if the great march of fascism in twenty-first century Europe was halted at the gates of Vienna.
Van der Bellen’s victory brings to an end the longest election in Austrian history. After the first run-off election in May, won by Van der Bellen with 50.3 percent of the vote, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) successfully challenged the outcome as thousands of postal ballots had been prematurely counted. The Constitutional Court ordered the election be fought anew in October, only for the vote to be postponed until December because of “Klebergate,” when the adhesive on postal vote envelopes was found faulty.
Due to increased scrutiny and a close race, a clear outcome was not expected until Monday or well into next week. It was therefore a tremendous surprise when shortly after the polls closed at 5 p.m. on Sunday, the state broadcaster ORF projected Van der Bellen had a lead that could not be overcome, with initial results from around the country showing he had outperformed himself compared to May—including in Hofer’s hometown of Pinkafeld in post-industrial eastern Austria.
As television stations and newspapers began to call the race for Van der Bellen around 17:30, the FPÖ conceded. Turning to Facebook, Hofer congratulated Van der Bellen on his success and called on all Austrians to “come together and work together.” At 6:30, the two rivals shook hands live on national television, and with that, the race was over.
Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.