Austrian far-right makes gains in presidential elections

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — A politician from Austria’s far-right party won 36 percent of the votes in the first round of presidential elections, beating all rivals and clinching the movement’s best electoral showing to date.

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party, or FPO, led by a 16-percent margin over an independent, left-leaning candidate who he will face in the final vote on May 22 for the post, which is largely a ceremonial one.

Hofer’s campaign focused on opposition to the arrival to Austria of migrants from Syria and Iraq, including many refugees. Hundreds of thousands of them have passed through Austria in recent months. In the second round, Hofer will run against the independent candidate Alexander van der Bellen, who is an environmentalist with a pro-refugee agenda.

Popular opposition to the arrival of refugees to Austria offers only a partial explanation to the FPO’s successes, according to Karl Pfeifer, a veteran journalist and anti-fascist activist who formerly edited the official publication of Vienna’s Jewish community of 8,000 people.


The Jewish Community of Vienna has shunned FPO, which it regards as having problematic ties to neo-Nazis. FPO Chairman Heinz-Christian Strache has denied these allegations and recently visited Israel, where he met with Likud officials. In 2012, Strache apologized for posting on Facebook a caricature depicting an obese, hook-nosed banker wearing star-shaped cufflinks.

“The success of the FPO reflects the political center’s failure to provide an alternative,” Pfeifer told JTA Monday. “Instead of confronting the FPO, the political establishment either ignored it or shifted rightward to steal would-be FPO voters, but the voters went to the source and cut out the middleman,” he said.

Another independent candidate, the right-of-center former judge Irmgard Griss, clinched 19 percent of the vote. She has not yet endorsed any of the remaining candidates in the final round. In France, mainstream rival parties put aside their differences and endorsed one another to keep the far-right National Front from winning. “But this sort of behavior does not occur in Austria,” Pfeifer said.

If Hofer wins, Pfeifer said, “it is my opinion that the Jewish community will have no choice but to cooperate with him, as it is bound to work with Austria’s elected leadership.” He added: “I fear for what this victory means for Austria and for Europe in general because it signals a slide into a restrictive democracy of the kind that exists in Hungary.”

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