May 18, 2016
A man with sharp suits and a soft tongue
The Austrian opinion pollsters were so humiliated in the first round of the president elections that they are no longer publishing any polls ahead of this Sunday's second round. The last ones we saw were a few weeks old and had the two candidate neck-and-neck, but most commentators see Nobert Hofer of the far-right FPÖ ahead of Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green party, the other surviving candidate. As with Brexit (see more below), the outcome is genuinely uncertain. But this election is important. The role of the Austrian president may be described as ceremonial, but it becomes ultimately very powerful during periods of government change. The president has the right to refuse the nomination of a chancellor. He can also force elections. These are powers that go far beyond those of the German president, whose role is genuinely ceremonial, and even that of the Italian president.
Christian Kern yesterday became Austria's next chancellor. Der Standard was impressed with both the perfection of his sharp suits and of his language. He made one important remark after being voted in, which is that he could envisage a cooperation with the FPÖ, not now but at some point in the future. While the ÖVP used to be in a coalition with the FPÖ previously, the SPÖ, the Social Democratic senior partner in Austria's current coalition, had so far categorically declined any co-operation, though it was in a coalition with the FPÖ in the past before it became radicalised under the late Jorg Haider. If Hofer were to win the elections, Kern may have no other choice since it would then become impossible to ignore the FPÖ. In any case, expect Austrian policy to shift to the right.