The results aren’t even fully counted in Austria’s presidential election. Yet the far-right Freedom Party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, has already conceded defeat due to crushing early returns — a result that stunned political observers and gives hope that the far-right wave sweeping the West can be stopped.
The polls closed at 5 pm Vienna time (11 am EST) on Sunday. Projections based on early returns showed Hofer’s opponent — the left-wing independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen — with a 7-point lead (53.6 percent to 46.4 percent). While the exact numbers are liable to change after each vote is counted, Van der Bellen’s lead is so wide that Hofer cannot hope to overcome it (the margin of error on the early projections is 1.6 percent).
“You have supported me so magnificently and I am infinitely sad that it did not work out,” Hofer wrote in a short Facebook message to his supporters. “I congratulate Alexander Van der Bellen on his success.”
Austrian polls completely missed this. Virtually all of them predicted a close election, with many showing a narrow Hofer victory. Van der Bellen’s surprise landslide suggests that polls aren’t systematically understating the far right’s chances, à la Brexit and Trump — rather, it’s that polls can miss in both directions.
“WOW!” Cas Mudde, an expert on far-right politics at the University of Georgia, tweeted after the results came in. “First time I love to be wrong in 2016!”
More importantly, Austria’s decisive rejection of Hofer shows that divisive, race-baiting politics isn’t guaranteed to triumph in the modern West. Austrians rejected the candidate who declared that “Islam has no place in Austria” in favor of a candidate who asked them to allow “reason rather than extremism to lead our decisions.”
There might be some hope for the West after all.
Hofer’s party is legitimately radical
To understand why this election mattered so much, you have to understand what Hofer and the Freedom Party (FPO) actually stood for.
Founded in 1956, in large part by former Nazis seeking a legitimate vehicle to participate in Austrian democracy, the party was irrelevant in mainstream Austrian politics for decades. But in 1986, the party was taken over by firebrand Jörg Haider.
Haider reoriented the party around one central element: fear of immigrants. He warned that mainstream politicians encouraged “foreign infiltration” of Austria and that Islam was “incompatible” with “human rights and democracy.” At the same time, he praised the Nazis, saying that Hitler had a "proper employment policy.”
Haider was remarkably successful. In 1999, the FPO won 26.9 percent of the national vote, securing the party a place in the Austrian government as a junior coalition partner. However, it was unable to end immigration to Austria: By 2003, 12.5 percent of Austrian residents were foreign-born.
Haider died in 2008, by which time the party’s popularity had fallen; it won just 11 percent of the vote that year. But under the leadership of Hofer and Strache, the Freedom Party has made a comeback in recent years.
"The [Freedom Party's] support is steadily growing: for more than a year it has topped every representative poll, being consistently backed by around 30 per cent of the respondents," political scientists Philip Rathgeb and Fabio Wolkenstein write at the London School of Economics' Europe blog.
According to Rathgeb and Wolkenstein, there are a number of reasons for this, including a slow economy and a political stalemate between the two dominant parties that has stymied policymaking. But immigration is by far the most important part of the story.
Austria's longstanding nativist streak came to the fore in the summer of 2015, when the European refugee crisis became the continent's dominant political issue. The FPO has cast Syrian and other Muslim refugees as a threat to Christian European civilization. This message has resonated with Austrian voters, a majority of whom think their country is on the wrong track.
Alarmed by FPO's surge in the polls on a wave of anti-refugee sentiment, the Austrian government reversed its pro-refugee policy, closing Austria's borders to refugees and asylum seekers. But that wasn't enough to stop the FPO’s rise: The party won a plurality in the first round of Austria's presidential election in April, forcing a runoff between Hofer and Van der Bellen (the candidates from the establishment center-right and center-left parties were eliminated in this first round, showing just how unhappy many Austrians were with the status quo).
The runoff vote was supposed to have been months ago: It was first held in May, with Van der Bellen winning by a tiny 31,000 margin. But an Austrian court nullified the vote, citing irregularities with mail-in ballots. The court rescheduled a redo of the presidential runoff vote for December 4.
Over the course of this extended campaign, Hofer’s radicalism became extremely clear to observers.
Why Hofer’s defeat is such a big deal
Traditionally, the Austrian president is mostly a ceremonial figure, with real power wielded by the chancellor (Austria’s equivalent of a prime minister). But as Wolkenstein explains, the Austrian constitution technically grants the president surprisingly unlimited powers to dismiss the chancellor and wield executive power on his or her own.
No Austrian president since 1945 has exercised this power, snuck into the constitution by an anti-democratic chancellor in 1929, for obvious reasons (cough, Hitler, cough). But Hofer had suggested he was open to invoking these so-called “secret” powers, telling Austrians that you “will be surprised about all the things that are possible.”
It’s hard to know whether Hofer actually would have actually been willing to remake the traditional role for the presidency — many observers were skeptical he’d be willing to take such a large risk. But even if Hofer hadn’t exercised the presidency’s full powers, his victory would have been dangerous.
For one thing, Hofer had occasionally signaled that he was open to taking Austria out of the European Union, something he could have pushed from his new high-profile perch.
For another, Hofer, a soft-spoken and telegenic candidate, had a real skill for making the FPO seem less radical and more normal. If he continued this trend during the presidency, it could have buoyed the FPO’s numbers in Austria’s 2018 legislative elections — potentially helping to fuel a far-right takeover of the country’s entire government.
“A moderate and, so to speak, well-behaved FPÖ president would be a great way of signaling electability to those who are still skeptical,” Wolkenstein writes for the London School of Economics’ Europe blog. “This makes imaginable a comfortable victory of the FPÖ — which consistently has approval ratings higher than those of all other parties — in next general election in 2018.”
Well, not anymore. It turns out that, as slick as Hofer might have been, Austrian voters saw through him — and voted in large numbers for his tolerant opponent.
Austria’s election is a break in the far-right wave
Prior to Sunday, far-right populists had been riding a wave of victories.
The far right, properly understood, is a group of parties around the West united principally around their hostility to mass immigration and multiculturalism. These parties — which have strong presences everywhere from the Netherlands to Sweden to Hungary — differ on traditional left/right issues like the size of the welfare state and LGBTQ rights.
But they all agree that mass immigration, particularly from nonwhite nations, poses a direct threat to the safety and cultural identity of Western countries. They’ve succeeded as a direct result of dissatisfaction among white voters with cultural change. They win because of, not despite, their racism.
In 2016, this message proved to be more effective than almost anyone had thought it would in years prior.
Brexit, a project of Britain’s far-right United Kingdom Independence Party, was the first shock. Trump, who fits the far-right model to a T, was an even bigger shock. Just last week, France’s center-right Republican Party elected François Fillon — a candidate who adopted the far-right message on immigration — to be its standard-bearer in the 2017 presidential election. Fillon is ahead in most general election polls; the runner-up is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National.
These three results — Britain’s referendum, America’s presidential vote, and France’s center-right primary — had mostly been missed by the polls. They suggested that the far right was stronger than even its West-wide strong poll numbers had suggested; that we were about to experience a wave of far-right parties.
If any party were to benefit from such a wave, it should be the FPO — one of Europe’s most established and historically successful far-right parties. Moreover, Austria has been a major way station for migrants since the refugee crisis really took off in 2015 — with more than 1 million migrants entering the country (though mostly not settling there) in the past year. You’d think the stage would be set for a sweeping Hofer victory, one that would prove that the polls yet again missed a far-right wave.
And indeed, the polls did miss Austria’s presidential election — only in the exact opposite direction. Hofer was blown out.
What makes Hofer’s defeat even more important, in a political sense, is the message Van der Bellen ran on. Instead of running on far-right lite policies, as some mainstream European politicians have done, he presented a straight contrast — preaching tolerance and acceptance, and casting Hofer’s anti-immigrant message as a threat to Austrian values.
His most successful campaign video featured an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor warning that “it’s not the first time something like this has happened,” calling on Austrians to reject bigotry and embrace Van der Bellen’s more open vision of Austria.
The success of this strategy “should be major wake-up call for defeatist liberal democrats,” Mudde, the UGA expert on the far right, writes. “Populism can be beaten and it can be beaten without pandering!”
Does this mean the far right’s momentum has been stopped? No, and it’s kind of a mistake to think in those terms. Each national election is mostly about national issues; it’s not like Americans voted for Trump because the UK voted for Brexit. So it’s not like a defeat for the far right in Austria means it will lose in Dutch parliamentary or French presidential elections.
It does show, however, that defeating the far right doesn’t require embracing a version of their message. Though ideals about tolerance and equality have taken a beaten in 2016, Austria’s election shows that they can still win the hearts of Western voters.