Austria's Center Splinters ; Political Middle Loses Grip in Election Marked by Rising Voter Discontent

By Smale, Alison | International New York Times, May 17, 2016 | Go to article overview

Austria's Center Splinters ; Political Middle Loses Grip in Election Marked by Rising Voter Discontent


Smale, Alison, International New York Times


Austria's presidential runoff could be a test of how far voters will go to demand change as immigration and economic stress create a combustible mix.

In Austria, at the very heart of Europe, the center is not holding.

After decades in which Austrian politics was dominated by center- right and center-left parties, voters emphatically rejected both in the first round of the election for a new president. The country -- focused, like many others in Europe, on the effects of large-scale immigration -- now faces a runoff on Sunday between a far-right, anti-immigration populist, who was the leading vote-getter in the first round, and a former Green Party leader.

The power of the presidency in Austria is a subject of debate. But the first round of the race stirred upheaval within the governing coalition of the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People's Party, including the resignation of Chancellor Werner Faymann, which further undercut the influence and stature of the political middle here.

Should the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party, win the presidency, he would be the first right-wing populist to become a head of state in post-World War II Europe.

The forces that vaulted Mr. Hofer into the spotlight are evident across much of the Continent, where many traditional parties in the center are embattled and voters are signaling increased discontent with politics as usual. Austria could be a test case for how far voters will go to demand change as immigration joins with diminished economic security and resentment of entrenched elites to create a combustible political mix.

But the disruption has been especially pronounced in Austria, the crossroads of a troubled Continent. Despite having dominated politics since 1945, or perhaps because of that dominance, the two major centrist parties could not muster even a quarter of the popular vote between them in the first round of the presidential contest.

Mr. Hofer won 35 percent. Behind him was the former Green Party leader, Alexander Van der Bellen, with 21 percent. There has not been any polling for the runoff, but all indications are that the race will be tight.

The tone of the political debate has added to the fears of many Austrians about the migrants who entered the country last year as hundreds of thousands of people fled Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations for the security and prosperity of Europe. The new arrivals, many of them Muslim, are regularly portrayed in tabloids, and by Mr. Hofer and his party, as freeloaders bringing crime, rape and even murder to this country of 8.4 million people.

"We are in a situation where people don't understand the world anymore, because it is changing so fast," said Georg Hoffmann- Ostenhof, a columnist for the liberal weekly magazine Profil. "And then came the migrants, and people were told that the politicians had lost control of the borders. That just heightened the overall sense that control was gone."

Hans Rauscher, a centrist columnist for the daily newspaper Der Standard, noted that even though most refugees who arrived last year went on to Germany and Scandinavia, "what people saw in images was people just coming, coming, coming -- and the influx didn't stop."

Mr. Faymann initially backed Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on her policy of keeping borders open to refugees. He reversed himself over the winter, siding with his coalition partner, the center-right People's Party, in shutting Austria's borders and persuading states along the Balkan refugee trail from Greece to do the same. …

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