What can other politicians learn from Austria’s Van der Bellen when facing populists, extremists?

What are the main reasons for Alexander Van der Bellen victory and would you say there something from his campaign what is possible to replicate in other political campaigns when facing populist, extremists opponents?

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

The voter transfer analyses are pretty clear: Over 60% of the voters wanted to prevent a Hofer presidency, the VdB campaign was far better a mobilizing voters, especially non-voters (144,000), and there was a net exchange of voters between Hofer and VdB, in which some 77,000 previous Hofer voters switched to VdB. Hofer won among men but VdB more clearly among women, he also scored among the young and the 60+.

The social mobilization in favor of VdB worked, the thousands of young volunteers, their activism in the social media, and the broad alliance across the board certainly was a strategy that worked. Vdb also positioned himself as a principled European who seemed calm, presidential, and exuded an aura of respectability at a time of change, emotion and instability. This was a contrast that worked well. His message ‘vote for international respectability’ clearly also worked, at the same time, he was a “fresh” face and came from a non-traditional party. Thus he also fulfilled some aspiration for change. The strategy that could be replicated: present authentic and principled candidates who are self-assured  in turbulent times  but who appear nonetheless fresh – e.g., the green governor of the Germans state Baden-Württemberg

Cas MuddeAssistant Professor, Department of International Affairs, University of Georgia

I think there is one dominant lessons to be learned from both the VDB victory and the popular vote victory of Hillary Clinton, is that an inclusive socio-cultural message, even by a non-perfect candidate, wins majority of the vote. In other words, populist radical right parties are the voice of a minority of the population and can be beaten electorally without pandering to their audience and agenda.

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

Both candidates were rather different, there was not much movement between them (i.e. voters didn’t switch votes from Hofer -> van der Bellen or vice versa). Rather, the election was about turnout: who is able to mobilize the own electorate? FPÖ supporters are usually harder to mobilize (because they are usually not so much into politics), but van der Bellen had the problem that there his “coalition” included voters who usually vote for the liberals, the social democrats, and the christian democrats. Nevertheless, according to first (!) results, van der Bellen mobilized more voters than in May (former non-voters), while Hofer couldn’t mobilize as much ass in May (many stayed at home).

There are several reasons why this might have happened:

1. van der Bellen had a “get out the vote” campaign (e.g. one of his election posters had the slogan “Wählen! Nicht wundern”; “Vote! Don’t be surprised”). This could have worked for many people who were afraid of a Hofer candidate.

2. The Christian Democrats did not endorse either candidate (and had internal struggles about the question). But many mayors from that party in rural areas endorsed van der Bellen; so he might have gained in these areas where traditional christian democrats did not vote in May.

3. The media issue agenda is different now than it was in May. There were many reports about the asylum seekers attacks in Germany in May, which arguably helped the FPÖ candidate Hofer. The media issue agenda is no more dominated by these topics (which might have a demobilizing effect).

4. The government changed its policy over immigration/asylum quite drastically in 2016: SPÖ-ÖVP cabinet members from both parties are now much more restrictive when it comes to immigration. So perhaps the most frustrated voters who voted for Hofer in May appreciate that turn, are no longer that dissatisfied, and did not vote this time.

It’s impossible to say right now, which of these potential explanations are the most striking ones. Therefore, I can’t say whether one could replicate a similar strategy in other countries as well. Yet, it’s worth noting that about 45% of all voters voted for a candidate of a populist party of the radical right; and this party is still ahead of all other parties in the current polls (about 35 percent; social democrats: 27%). So, this was not a devastating year for the FPÖ!


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