How does Austria’s Hofer fit into current populist wave?

As the results of the second round of Austrian presidential election in May were annulled, re-vote between leftist Alexander Van der Bellen and far-right populist Norbert Hofer is due to take place on 4 December 2016.


1. It seems that Mr. Norbert Hofer is a favorite before the presidential election. But he originally lost. So what have changed from the last time from what is he benefiting?

2. Of course, there are constant discussions right now about the populist wave in the Western world. How does Hofer fit into this wave and how is he unique?


Reinhard Heinisch, Professor of Austrian Politics in Comparative European Perspective, Department of Political Science, Chair, University of Salzburg

1. That Hofer is a favorite is based on the understanding that he has led more often than Van der Bellen in recent surveys, that the emotional connection to his voters is stronger than the connection between VdB and his voters many of whom vote for him because they want to block Hofer but that motivation is generally a weaker bond (cf. Clinton vs Trump) and also rural Austrians are more likely to turn out than urban Austrians and turnout will matter. BUT we have NO concrete evidence that Hofer is indeed a favorite and the polls are too close to call.

Hofer clearly benefits from the favorable issue environment (refugees, a string of populist victories abroad, and the continued unpopularity of the government even under new leadership).

VdB might benefit from the fact that Brexit and Trump may have given Austrian some pause and may cause them to reconsider voting for a rightwing populist.

2. The FPÖ has been a rightwing populist party since the 1980s. They have been such long before most others. They and their leading figures are rightwing populist in that they frame their politics in terms of a people-versus-elites worldview;  they are opportunistic and dogmatically very flexible (as opposed to a radical right party), and their core voter groups fit the profile of other such parties (people with lower levels of education, males, either blue-collar class or rural areas).

A Hofer victory would be unique for Austria because for the first time the FPÖ would win a national election, would have more than 50% of the vote, for the first time there will be a federal president from a party other than the two main parties and who might actually then realize the full potential of this office whereas the presidents thus far from the main parties were always restrained by their respective parties. Internationally it would be another symbolic victory of the populist right – it would hasten the end of the current govt. and probably led to new national election next year.

Thomas Meyer, Research Assistant, Department of Government and the AUTNES project, University of Vienna 

1. The race is really close, and there is no clear favourite for the election on 4 December. The polls suggest that it’s “too close to call”, and it’s not unlikely that we get the final result only on Monday (when the postal votes are counted; as in May). Of course, polls could be wrong, but right now pollsters, commentators and political scientists hesitate to make predictions. My opinion is that the election will very much depend on the turnout; the ability of both candidates to get out the vote. That’s not easy for both of them: higher educated people are usually more likely to vote (advantage for van der Bellen), but van der Bellen’s voters are much more heterogenous than Hofer’s voters, and thus it’s more difficult to motivate them to vote on 4 December. In May, the difference between both candidates was about 30,000 votes (49.6 vs. 50.4 percent) – it could be as close as that on Sunday, or – depending on the turnout – also a larger margin. On which site it tips is, however, very hard to predict.

All in all, I’d even argue that some parameters have changed to Hofer’s disadvantage: TTIP is off the table right now, and the “refugee crisis” is no longer that dominant in the public agenda as it was in Summer 2016. Moreover, the federal government (under the new chancellor) adjusted its position on migration and now takes a tougher stance. All these factors make it harder for Mr. Hofer to get people to vote.

2. This election actually fits quite nicely into the European landscape: voters who are unsatisfied increasingly turn towards populist parties (often of the right). Mr. Hofer’s more moderate appearance is also in line with the strategy of the FPÖ in general (or the Front National in France). These parties now have a more moderate appearance and softer tone to win votes beyond the fringes. What is different from legislative elections is the electoral system: it’s majoritarian (not proportional) and voters elect persons (not parties). So, the candidates’ personal traits (honesty, sympathy…) matter more than in party-centred elections. Moreover, many voters who usually support the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, or the liberal party now need to choose the ‘lesser evil’ (or abstain).

Franz Fallend, Senior Scientist, Department of Political Science, University of Salzburg

1. There have been only a few opinion surveys recently, and the results suggest that it will be a close race. Hofer ‘lost’ the first run-off, that’s right, but only by a very small margin (30,863 votes). As it’s unlikely that many voters will change their preference, much will depend on voter turnout. Many Austrians seem to be tired of the seemingly endless election campaign, but it’s unclear which candidate will profit from a lower voter turnout. Possibly, Hofer may benefit from the election of Donald Trump to become US-President.

2. Hofer fits well into the ‘populist wave in the Western world’. He has roots in far-right fraternity organizations, speaks in the language of the ‘common man from the street’ (more credibly than his counterpart), is very talented in arising negative feelings towards the political and social elite (‘the establishment’), whom he accuses of ignoring the legitimate security concerns of the people in the face of ‘waves’ of immigrants, and is, supported by his party, very active in the social media. Critics, however, say that, although he constantly underlines that he tries to be ‘sincere’, in reality he ‘acts’, changes his positions at will (so, for example, he does not propose any more that Austria should leave the EU) and therefore should not be trusted. To sum up, it’s largely unclear what he will actually do in case he were elected president. What makes him ‘unique’ is probably his friendly, conciliatory appearance, which stands in contrast to the appearances of his party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache and the general secretary of the party (the party seems to have a clever division of labor in place here). By lending the party his more likable face, he has managed to reach far beyond the, according to opinion polls, 30 to 35 per cent of the people who declare at the moment a party preference for the FPÖ.

Kurt Richard Luther, Professor of Comparative Politics, Keele University

1. It is important to note a few things.

First, the margin of Van der Bellen’s victory last time was very small (ca. 31,000) and so it could have gone the other way last time.

Second, there are a number of people who think that the Federal Constitutional Court’s acceptance that there had been (minor) procedural irregularities (even if they definitely could not have changes the outcome), will have strengthened the traction of the FPO’s argument that the establishment’s ‘system parties’ were rigging the system against them.

Third, developments overseas (in particular the Brexit vote and Trump’s elections) have provided external examples of the success of anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Finally, Hofer may well have been slightly ahead in most recent polls, but it is only once the votes have been counted that we will be able to be sure if he really was ahead or not. Brexit and Trump caution us to be careful about predictions. Should Hofer not win, the 20-20 vision of hindsight may well explain that result with the argument that the prospect of a Hofer victory mobilised anti-FPOe voters. In other words, we do not yet know what will happen.

2. Hofer and the FPOe very much fit into this ‘wave’, but the FPOe has been an early and arguably a leading part of it for 30 years, since Haider’s election. Despite their rhetoric, he and his party have for many years been part of Austrian political mainstream. As you know, the FPO entered government in 2000 and it was only in 2005, when Haider formed the breakaway BZOe that it was ejected from that role and reverted to populist vote maximization (see my academic article).

If you look at the volume we produced last year on European populism in the shadow of the great recession, you will see we tested four hypotheses about the link between the Great Recession and the rise of populist discourse and populist party success. In my detailed analysis of the Austrian case, I argued that given the relative strength of the economy (or at least the relative weak impact of the great recession – or of its economic competitiveness element)  anti-system protest was a stronger explanation (also see).

To that should of course be added the migrant crisis/immigration, which were of course relevant in the cases of Brexit and the election of Trump.




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