Why you should care
Because he’s helping pull Europe to extremes.
Norbert Hofer is soft-spoken and leans on a cane — the remnant of a paragliding mishap that nearly paralyzed him. At 45 and prematurely gray, he has a reassuring smile, but a kind of youthful zeal when he speaks. Here is a man who understands why Austrians are scared about the future, their jobs and their safety, and he is promising to put Österreich zuerst— Austria first.
Or so it seems, to many. The presidential Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) candidate defied polls last month, dismissing traditional party politicians in the first round of voting, netting 36 percent of the ballots. Today marks the second and final round, and this far-right presidential wannabe could very well take the helm of this landlocked schnitzel-loving nation. He’s heard his countrymen’s grievances, diagnosed the problems — Islam, refugees, the EU and globalization — and he’s here to help. Such simple messages of scapegoats and solutions are being heard the world over; this Glock-wielding populist with a fondness for shooting and Margaret Thatcher is indeed sharing a now-familiar playbook with America’s Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen. But a win today will cement the rise of conservative populism in Western Europe, despite the fact that the presidency here is largely ceremonial.
“Islam has no place in Austria,” Hofer’s told voters.
Until now, the married father of four, whose campaign didn’t reply to OZY’s request for comment, has managed to keep a low profile outside party circles — so much so that political analysts are hard-pressed to pinpoint the defining moments that fueled his rise. “He was never in the front row of the [FPÖ],” says Anton Pelinka, a politics professor at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Hailing from eastern Burgenland, where he joined the party’s branch after studying aeronautical engineering, Hofer became party secretary in 1996 and has long been an FPÖ strategist and advisor to the far more aggressive and divisive party chair, Heinz-Christian Strache. Hofer didn’t hit anyone’s radar, really, until 2013, when he was named Third President of Austria’s National Council after the FPÖ became the third-biggest party in Parliament in the last national election.
Hofer is a “friendly face,” says Pelinka — at least compared to Strache — and one “the party is using to gain acceptance.” It’s working: Polls show FPÖ support at over 30 percent nationwide, reflecting growing anti-Muslim sentiment and concern for Europe’s refugee crisis. Austria in recent months has limited the number of asylum claims and tightened its borders. It’s even showed a soft spot for Russia recently, despite Putin’s antics in Crimea and Ukraine.
But, “if you look carefully, he’s not soft,” warns professor Ruth Wodak, a linguistics and politics expert at England’s Lancaster University. She calls him “one of the ideologues,” and “the one who wrote the party program for the FPÖ.” If he’s unhappy with the government? He says he’ll dissolve Parliament and call new elections — a presidential perk that’s never before been exercised. “Islam has no place in Austria,” Hofer’s told voters, latching onto the refugee crisis in a bid to win.
But he’s also flexible. In Parliament, Hofer’s been far more right-wing than on the campaign trail. Heinz Gärtner, academic director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, calls Hofer’s ability to sound moderate without abandoning far-right ideals his greatest strength.
FPÖ is the country’s most popular party today, drawing support largely from those who Pelinka calls “modernization losers” — people afraid of globalization, mass migration and changes they fear could undermine their future. Hofer’s far from a unanimously loved figure, though — traditional conservative politicos from the People’s Party have encouraged voters today to instead back independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party candidate (imagine Ted Cruz lobbying his base to vote for Bernie over Trump). Still, says Gärtner, “the likelihood that [Hofer] wins is higher than 50 percent.”
And what then? Stronger government, greater isolationism, efforts to reform the EU, more alliances with European partners who put state interests over the bloc’s. The party doesn’t bad-mouth all foreign groups, mind you — the FPÖ cooperates with Serbs in Austria to ally against the Turks, says Gärtner, playing migrant groups against each other, which could ironically lead to some “foreign” votes for FPÖ. And a victory wouldn’t spell an end to migrants’ rights or international dealings. If Hofer wins, nothing is likely to change right away. Most doubt Hofer would even leverage the theoretic muscle of the presidency to dissolve Parliament. The next national elections are scheduled for 2018, when the FPÖ hopes to see Strache installed as chancellor, Austria’s true head of state.
So Hofer, experts say, is likely to bide his time and work with new social-democratic Chancellor Christian Kern, as each man tries to deepen his respective support base. Hofer’s no Hitler, and Austria’s no Third Reich. Coalition governance is the name of the game, so even with a Hofer-Strache tag team, they’d have at most a majority in Parliament and be confronted by a left wing that coalesces against them to keep Austria on its democratic path. But the FPÖ’s rise is setting the land of Franz Peter Schubert on the road to a politically divisive future.