Far-Right Candidate Loses Austrian Presidential Election

May 23, 2016
Originally published on May 23, 2016 2:10 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn now to Europe where we are just getting results in an election that was dominated by a debate over immigration. In Austria, voters have narrowly elected a left-leaning, independent candidate who says immigration helps the economy. A far-right, populist candidate who talked tough about immigration and about Muslims lost barely. These results were being watched closely across Europe where the migration crisis has upended establishment politicians. Reporter Joanna Kakissis is on the line from Vienna. Joanna, good morning.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this sounds like an incredibly close election. We're talking a razor-thin margin here.

KAKISSIS: That's correct. It was very, very close, and it was decided today while officials were counting something like up to 900,000 ballots, mail-in ballots, absentee ballots. And those ballots, those voters went for Alexander Van der Bellen who is an independent candidate backed by the Green Party.

He's actually a former leader of the Green Party. He's an economist. He's 72. He's a retired professor. And many Austrians saw him as the safe choice. They weren't crazy about him, but they saw him as a safer choice than Norbert Hofer, the leader of the far-right party, who also energized many Austrians but was also seen as very dangerous.

GREENE: OK. Well, talk about - I mean, for a far-right candidate who is seen by some as dangerous to come this close, I mean, what exactly was he tapping into and what was significant here?

KAKISSIS: That's a good question. What he was tapping into is unease about many, many migrants who have come to Austria in the last year. Austrians felt overwhelmed. They felt like they couldn't take care of all the people that were coming. Ninety thousand asylum-seekers arrived in Austria last year. They thought, will our money go - will our money be able to provide for them? Will we have places for them to live?

And some Austrians were also scared that there would be a rise in violence. There were - there was a - there were a spate of crimes in the last few months that were caused by migrants. But people thought, OK, this is a trend, even though it - overall crime statistics did not go up. So there was this sense of fear, this sense that we can't manage this crisis. And the establishment politicians didn't do anything to help us. They just sort of let this ship go unmoored and were watching it. So this is one reason why Norbert Hofer did win so much support.

GREENE: And where does he go from here politically? I mean, is that far-right movement that he tapped into - I mean, is it in trouble in Austria or are there places for him to go now?

KAKISSIS: You know, this is actually a victory for him. Even though he's not president, he came very, very close. And I was at a party last night. They were celebrating - the Freedom Party was celebrating it. Norbert Hofer's party was celebrating it because they said even if Norbert Hofer is not president tomorrow, we won. We have half of Austrians behind us, and we are going to be a political force in Austria in the years to come.

That's pretty accurate. And that's also - even though the Green candidate is now the president, it's troubling many European Union politicians that here we go, this party won half of Austrian support, half of Austrian votes.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to reporter Joanna Kakissis this morning in Vienna as we're just getting results from a presidential election. A left-leaning independent candidate who supports immigration, says he helps the - it helps the economy, has narrowly defeated a far-right candidate. Joanna, thanks very much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.