On 22 May, Austrians cast their ballots in the second round of the Austrian presidential elections. Voters chose between far-right Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, and former Green Party leader, Alexander Van Der Bellen. After a remarkably close race, Alexander Van Der Bellen emerged as Austria’s new President, winning by just 0.6% or around 31,000 votes.
Voters went to the polls on Sunday 22 May to cast their ballots in the second and final round of the Austrian presidential elections. This second round was triggered when no candidate managed to win the absolute majority required to be sworn in as President in the first round of elections on 24 April.
The two candidates who secured the highest number of votes in the first round proceeded to the second: far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, and Green Party-supported Independent candidate, Alexander Van Der Bellen. The result of 24 April was particularly notable as it meant that, for the first time since the end of World War II, the Austrian President would not be backed by the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) or the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), who have effectively ruled the country between them since 1951. The results triggered the resignation of SPÖ Chancellor, Werner Faymann, who was replaced by Christian Kern, former head of Austria’s federal railway company.
The success of the FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer, was welcomed by far-right politicians across Europe, such as Marine Le Pen. President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, both expressed concern over a possible victory for Norbert Hofer.
In the first round, Norbert Hofer won 35% of the vote, while Alexander Van Der Bellen won 21%. However, the final race for the presidential seat was far closer, with the result reported as being ultimately decided by postal votes.
Voter turnout was 71.8%, up from 70% in the first round of the presidential elections, which itself showed a marked increase from just 50% in the last presidential elections in 2010.
Ballots were remarkably close, with both candidates polling at 50% after the votes cast at polling stations had been counted. The result is reported to have hung on the postal votes, which tilted the balance in favour of Alexander Van Der Bellen who ultimately won by 0.6%, taking 50.3% of the votes while Norbert Hofer took 49.7%, with a difference of around 31,000 votes.
The breakdown of the vote highlighted a divide in Austrian society, with Alexander Van Der Bellen winning in the cities, while Norbert Hofer won in rural areas. Almost 90% of voters who were manual workers voted for Norbert Hofer, while voters with a third level or other higher education degree tended to vote for Alexander Van Der Bellen.
Alexander Van Der Bellen’s campaign had urged voters to support “an open, Europe-friendly, Europe-conscious Austria”, but also used certain rhetoric traditionally associated with the right, such as ‘Heimat’ meaning homeland. A former Dean at the University of Vienna, Green Party Member of Parliament, and most recently member of the Vienna City Council, Alexander Van Der Bellen’s victory was welcomed by the European Green Party who said “Europe’s values and our shared republican and democratic goals can be defended against insurgent right-wing populism”.
Like in Ireland, the role of the President of Austria is largely ceremonial. However, the incumbent can dissolve the lower house of Parliament, the National Council, to trigger a general election. The President also swears in the government. Both candidates had declared their intention of playing a stronger role in Austrian politics than their predecessors, with Norbert Hofer stating that he would dissolve the National Council and Alexander Van Der Bellen announcing that he would not swear in an FPÖ Chancellor.
Had Norbert Hofer won, Austria would have had the EU’s first far-right head of state. With the most recent opinion polls showing the FPÖ as the most popular party for the next federal elections which are due to take place in 2018, he has said he will support FPÖ leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, in his ambitions to become Austrian Chancellor. “The effort for this campaign is not lost,” Norbert Hofer said in a Facebook post conceding defeat, “but is an investment in the future.”