Austrian citizens are going to the polls today to elect their new president. The race is tight and it seems that the refugee crisis will be one of the main factors influencing the outcome of the election.
The refugee crisis has affected some European countries more than others. Austria, located in the centre of Europe, has become a transit country for a large number of immigrants wishing to reach other states like, for example, Germany or the United Kingdom. In addition, the large number of people seeking asylum in Austria has led to an increase of fears for rising unemployment and cultural breakdown among Austrians.
As a result, the refugee crisis became a major issue in the run-up to the presidential election. With Austrians becoming more and more polarized by the large inflow of immigrants into their country, the candidates at Austrian Presidential Election have have largely based their campaigns on the immigration issue.
Austrian Presidential Election:Who are the candidates?
There are six candidates running for the presidential post. The candidates of the two mainstream parties (currently in government) are Rudolf Hundstorfer (Social Democratic Party, SPÖ) and Andreas Khol (People’s Party-ÖVP-the conservative party in Austria).
Alexander van der Bellen is the candidate of the Green Party and the one that can be placed at the left end of the political spectrum. Norbert Hofer is running as the candidate of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Austrian far-right party. In addition, there are two independent candidates running for the presidential post, Irmgard Griss and Richard Lugner.
The latest opinion polls show Alexander van der Bellen (Green party) and Nobert Hofer (Freedom Party, Austria’s far right party) gaining most public support with Irmgard Griss taking the third place. The polls also indicate that none of the candidates will manage to win outright on Sunday. In the event of this scenario taking place, a second run off has been scheduled for May 22nd. In this second electoral round, the field of candidates will be reduced to two.
If opinion polls are to be trusted, it seems that Alexander van der Bellen will gain enough votes to proceed to the second electoral round while the second place will be occupied by either Nobert Hofer or Irmgard Griss. Rudolf Hundstorfer is also likely to win a large percentage of the vote and might secure a place in the second round.
The run-up to the 2016 Austrian Presidential election
Against the backdrop of the refugee crisis, the candidates have, to a large extent, based their electoral campaign on the issue of immigration with the ones topping the polls adopting quite diverse approaches. Alexander van der Bellen has been voicing his criticisms on the government’s immigration policies arguing that these have been too restrictive and too tough, especially for asylum seekers. Norbert Hofer, on the other hand, uses an anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric arguing that the current government’s immigration policies are too soft and elastic. Irmgard Griss, on her part, seems to be taking the middle road with regards to the refugee crisis. More specifically, she argues that refugees must be protected but, at the same time, admission into the EU must be regulated.
What is the importance of Austrian Presidential Election?
Firstly, it seems very likely that the far right Freedom Party, following the current European trend, will experience an increase in its electoral support. Radical parties to the right of centre right conservatives have been gaining mass public support in recent years across Europe. Examples include the Swiss People’s Party, the British UKIP and the Dutch Party for Freedom. It seems that the Austrian Freedom Party will not be the exception.
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, it seems likely that the two establishment parties will not secure a place in the second electoral round. Traditionally, Austrian politics have been dominated by the socialist SPÖ and the conservative ÖVP and the presidential post has been no exception. Since the post has been put to popular vote in 1951, a candidate of one of the two aforementioned centrist parties was taking over the presidency. This time, however, opinion poll data suggest that the candidates of one of these two parties, or even both of them, will not manage to proceed to the second electoral round.
Having in mind that opinion polls may not always accurately reflect the public opinion, one cannot help but wonder whether the aforementioned developments can be attributed to the refugee crisis. To some extent, they can. The immigration crisis has boosted support for radical right parties across Europe. However, other important factors should not be overlooked. Domestic factors like, for example, the fact that Austrians are tired by establishment parties and politics, are also part of the picture.