December 02, 2016
Austria's Trump-Clinton moment
As Helmut Kohl knew better than anyone else, small countries matter in the EU and should be taken seriously. But, in view of last night's debate between the two Austrian presidential candidates, we have to admit that we find it hard to apply that principle ourselves, and even to relay the content of the debate with a straight face.
The Austrian presidential elections are clearly the second most important vote on Sunday. A No vote in Italy would have far more immediate consequences for the EU (as would a Yes vote) than the rise of Norbert Hofer of the far-right FPÖ to the Austrian presidency. We should, however, not underestimate the importance of a victory of another Trump-style candidate in a central European country. Hungary and Poland have already gone down that route and, while Slovakia has nominally a government of the centre-left, they, too, are in the populist camp. The opinion polls published before this repeated run-off were inconclusive. Most had Hofer ahead by a tiny margin, and the last one we saw reversed the result with a slight advantage for Alexander van der Bellen, the Green candidate. But the gap in each of the polls was within the error margin, so the polls tell us little.
Sunday's repeat run-off became necessary because the second-round vote in the summer, narrowly won by van der Bellen, was declared invalid by the constitutional court. Austria's Der Standard talked about last night's TV duel between the candidates as the "presumably last one" - maybe they are expecting another legal challenge. The debate itself was similar in style as those between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Hofer accused van der Bellen of being a spy - because he read that in a book, and since van der Bellen never sued the author, the information must therefore be true. Hofer was equally pathetic when he boasted that he, if elected, would get an invitation from Trump - unlike his opponent. And the two also clashed over whether or not van der Bellen would appoint a FPÖ-led government at the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2018. The Green candidate retracted from his earlier statement that he would not, and said instead that he would try to appoint a pro-EU government.
So, who won the debate? There were no polls, but we noted a comment by a media analyst in Kurier, who said van der Bellen gives honest answers but comes across as a university professor, while Hofer has a more direct appeal.
The Austrian president has no direct political powers, which is why much of yesterday's debate is meaningless. But the president has the power to dismiss the government and call new elections, as well as the powers to refuse to appoint a democratically elected government. We think there is a high probability of an FPÖ-led government in Austria in 2018, at which point there must be legitimate doubts about the country's continued willingness to remain a member of the EU. Hofer said he favours more direct democracy - through referendums - and we all know where that ends. The importance of this election is thus indirect. It is a signal - albeit an important one.