In a dramatic demonstration of the state of European politics, Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom party, came out on top in the first round of voting in Austria's presidential elections. He secured 36 percent of the vote, which, though not an outright majority, placed him far ahead of candidates from the country's two main centrist parties, which have governed Austria either alone or in coalition since the end of World War II.
A tweet from an AFP journalist in Vienna showed the scale of Hofer's triumph. He won the majority of votes in most parts of the country, with the exception of the capital — perched in the northeast of Austria. Hofer is expected to face Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent contender backed by the Greens, in the May 22 runoff election.
— Nina Lamparski (@ninaism) April 25, 2016
The election verdict — and the map above — is an illustration of popular dissatisfaction with the country's political establishment, stoked by increasing economic woes and the government's response to a refugee crisis that has polarized public opinion throughout the continent and fanned populist fury.
In a recent poll cited by Politico Europe, only 12 percent of Austrians think the country is moving in the right direction, with 52 percent saying it isn’t. Austria received some 90,000 asylum requests, the second highest number in Europe in per capita terms.
The role of the federal presidency is largely ceremonial, but with the two mainstream parties — the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People's Party — still locked in a coalition government till 2018, this weekend's election was seen as a referendum on their rule. For Austria's political establishment, the results were ugly. The coalition parties garnered only 20 percent of the vote, compared with 80 percent six years ago.
"This is the beginning of a new political era," said Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party. Its triumph was hailed as "magnificent" in a tweet by Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front, which itself is poised for further electoral gains. Le Pen went on to extol the rise of "patriotic" movements throughout Europe.
Hofer embodies much of the right-wing, nationalist fervor gripping societies across the continent. According to Deutsche Welle news agency, he carries a gun out of supposed fear of refugees. He wants Austria to leave the European Union and also ban headscarves worn by Muslim women. He wants to prevent all foreigners from receiving benefits through Austria's social welfare system.
Strache, meanwhile, once rebuffed criticism that he was racist by arguing in his defense that he "eats kebabs."
It's still likely, though, that Hofer and the Freedom Party will lose the run-0ff poll, with a groundswell of Austrians opposed to the far-right backing his challenger.
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