Just when it appeared that the growth of right wing populism was unstoppable across Europe, Austrian voters rejected the far right Freedom Party in favor of the leftist Green Party.

People pass posters of presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen in Vienna, Austria. Photo: AP

Austria has long been one of the pioneers of right wing populism in Europe, so concerned European liberals and traditional conservatives breathed a collective sigh of relief on Dec. 4, when the 45-year-old candidate of the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ), Norbert Hofer, lost the presidential election to the 72-year-old economics professor and former head of the Green party, Alexander Van der Bellen.

Although the official vote count will take another several days to complete, Hofer conceded the loss and congratulated Van der Bellen on the evening of Dec. 4. According to the preliminary results, Van der Bellen secured 53.3 percent of the votes, while Hofer received 46.7 percent. The turnout was 74 percent.

The longest ever race for the largely ceremonial post of the head of state lasted 11 months and attracted vast international attention, since it coincided with the overall trend of growing support for the populist forces in the Western world. The Brexit vote in the UK and Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election were just the two most obvious signs of this trend.

Austria, on the other hand, is a country that as far back as in the 1990s surprised the world by voting the far right party into the ruling coalition and where support for the FPÖ has consistently grown over the past years. This support began to rally even before the latest wave of migration.

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Unprecedented campaign

This Austrian presidential campaign was unique in several ways. For the first time, none of the primary establishment parties – the Social-Democrats or People’s Party – even made it to the final. Then, in the second round in May, Van der Bellen won with a very slim margin. Hofer disputed the vote count on procedural grounds and the Constitutional Court ordered a rerun of the second round in October. That, however, was cancelled because of the flawed envelopes for the absentee ballots.

The pause, however, allowed Van der Bellen’s campaign to consolidate behind him the entire political spectrum other than those on the far right, win over the traditional media, correct previous mistakes by working actively with the rural population and mobilize the young vote.

“Young people who had the possibility to vote for the first time have in the last days really pushed the movement. That is the point that made us so successful,” the head of the Green party, Eva Glavischnig, told reporters on Dec. 4. “I was convinced we would be successful, but so successful – I didn’t dare. I am very happy,” she added. She also stressed, however, that the Green party was only a part of the coalition that brought Van der Bellen to the presidency.

Several commentators also told Russia Direct that it was a mistake for Hofer to change his tactic to being aggressive and arrogant during the last debates on Dec. 1, just days before voters went to the polls. Political consultant Peter Plaikner told Russia Direct that in the last week before the vote, Van der Bellen had four times as many interactions on Facebook as Hofer, while social networks are a traditional strength of the Freedom Party.

Russia as a political symbol

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Like elsewhere in the West, the Russia issue was present in the campaign because anti-establishment forces embrace it as one of the points that differentiate them from the ruling elites. This is especially true since anti-Russia sanctions do not have widespread popular support. Hofer spoke several times in favor of future recognition of Crimea as Russian territory, declared that EU sanctions imposed on Russia must be lifted and promised to visit Moscow as one of his first foreign tours.

On the other hand, Van der Bellen, whose family of Dutch origin were part of the Russian nobility, differed with Hofer on Russia largely in tone and detail rather than in substance. The solution of the Crimea problem would require a treaty between Moscow and Kiev, he said. In the meantime, he stressed the importance for Austria of maintaining an equal relationship with Russia and the United States and, while also critical of anti-Russian sanctions as such, expressed this criticism in much more cautious terms, stressing also the need for progress in resolving the Ukraine crisis.

“Van der Bellen is the kind of person who can well assess Russia’s role for modern Europe, so he too will try to develop good relations with Russia,” suggests Franz Fischler, former politician of the Austrian People’s Party and EU Commissioner, currently president of the European Forum Alpbach.

As far as the broader international significance of Van der Bellen’s victory is concerned, Fischler told Russia Direct that it is two-fold.  “It is a clear message, especially to Europe, that the influence of the right wing parties is also limited and it is not automatic that we are moving towards a situation in Europe where we would see more and more right-wing governments,” Fischler said in an interview.

“The second signal, and very important one, is that in many parts of the world Austria is still seen as a country, whose relation to the Nazi past is not entirely put to rest. Now, I would say, that this result is a clear signal that this hypothesis has proven wrong,” he added.

Electoral paradox

According to Fischler, Trump’s election, which was expected to boost the morale of Hofer’s voters, in fact played against the right wing candidate. “I think Trump doesn’t have a lot of sympathy in our country, so people thought: if this is the direction where we would go, then this would be worrying,” he told Russia Direct.

Eva Linsinger, chief editor for politics of the leading Austrian weekly magazine Profil, which supported Van der Bellen, spoke of a paradox: “Austria has a long history of the rise of the right wing populist parties. It started in the 1990s. For decades Europe was looking with shock and awe at Austria: look what’s happening in this small country! This time for the first time Austria is not in the trend and does a completely different thing: it elected not the right wing populist (despite the fact they are successful everywhere else), but a green economics professor,” she said.

Commentators were cautious, however, about presenting Van der Bellen’s victory as a reversal of the European trend. “The trend of course stays and will stay as long as the economic situation in Europe is not going to change. People vote in a certain way not because they want to have an ungrounded protest, but because they have real problems in life,” argues Heimo Lepuschitz, a political consultant associated with the right wing of Austrian politics.

A sigh of relief

Plaikner says that for Europe, the victory of Van der Bellen means a short breath of relief after Brexit, after Trump, after Turkey - but just a short breath. A whole series of upcoming elections in Europe will challenge the political environment in Europe: Sunday’s referendum in Italy lost by the Matteo Renzi government, March parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections France, regional and then federal elections in Germany and, finally, a vote in the Czech Republic. “We have to proceed from the presumption that in all of these elections, the right wing populists may not necessarily win, but will certainly have serious gains,” he says.

Despite the victory of Van der Bellen, who was seen as the candidate of the establishment, close to half of Austrians voting for an FPÖ candidate is nonetheless a very serious factor of European politics, commentators argue. As for the candidates themselves, they spoke Sunday evening about uniting the split Austrian society.

“I don’t want to divide the country. Now it is up to me and Mr. Van der Bellen to tell people who supported us that it is important to see that we are one country, we are all Austrians and we have to work together,” Hofer told reporters.

Meanwhile, Van der Bellen declared his goal for the six-year presidency: to make sure that by the end of it, or, better, even earlier, when he meets people in the street, they would say, “This is our president. Not the president, but our president!”