Austrian election will be determined by absentee ballots, as world media struggle with specter of nationalist/populist revolt

The world’s media are struggling to comprehend and explain the rise of a nationalist and populist candidate for chancellor in Austria, a country that formerly was a typical Western European liberal/progressive member of the EU.  With the unanticipated rise of Donald Trump as a nationalist/populist in the United States as well as nationalists in France, Germany, and Britain and elsewhere in Europe, Austria is something of a test case for them.

All over Europe, the wave of Muslims demanding entry and imposing their way of life on their hosts has shaken the hold of the progressive left on national governments and raised the specter of a weakening or even collapsing EU.  Austria yesterday went to the polls to elect a new chancellor, and the results will be determined today by a count of mail ballots.  As in the United States, mailed in absentee ballots have sharply risen as a share of the total vote.

The Associated Press reports:

Direct votes Sunday gave right-winger Norbert Hofer 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent for Alexander Van der Bellen, a Greens politician running as an independent. But final projections that include still-to-be-counted absentee ballots put each at 50 percent with Van der Bellen narrowly ahead.

About 700,000 absentee ballots — close to a sixth of total votes cast — are slated to be counted by Monday evening for a final tally.

Polling suggests that absentee voters tend to support Van der Bellen, so the outcome is completely unpredictable.  This leaves the world’s media with the task of explaining something it doesn’t, for the most part, like: a conservative, populist, nationalist wave displacing leftist, globalist, socialist dominance.  There are some very surprising reactions.

The BBC, for instance, is not pushing the panic button:

The Freedom Party holds views that are unpalatable for many, but a sizeable chunk of the electorate view the group as a dynamic, "taboo-free" and plain-talking alternative to the staid, privileged and ineffective powers that be.

In contrast, the normally more conservative U.K. Daily Mail is.  Dominic Sandbrook writes:

[Freedom Party Candidate Hofer] is a man described by one Austrian politician as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing, a ticking time bomb’. 

This is a man who once called for Austria to be reunited with Germany, a man who has for years been sending out subtle signals about his fondness for Austria’s history under the Third Reich, and the man who controversially said: ‘Islam has no place in Austria.’

The truth is that Norbert Hofer is simply the modern face of nationalist extremism. The real giveaway, oddly enough, is in his favourite flower – the blue cornflower.

Though few people outside Austria would recognise the allusion, the blue cornflower is a symbol of Nazi nostalgia. 

During the mid-1930s, when the Nazis were banned in Austria, party members wore blue cornflowers so that they could recognise one another in public.

Naturally, Mr Hofer denies that his fondness for the cornflower has anything to do with the Nazis. 

Yet his organisation, the Freedom Party, has never made a secret of its sneaking sympathies for Adolf Hitler, who was born in sleepy Upper Austria in 1889, and did not move to Germany until he was in his mid-twenties.

Unlike their German neighbours, the Austrians have never confronted the truth about their crimes in the 1930s and 1940s, preferring to present themselves as victims of the Third Reich, instead of largely willing collaborators. 

Meanwhile, the New York Times acknowledges the crime wave that has frightened Austrians and led to Vienna police telling a young blonde woman attacked by Muslim immigrants to dye hair, to wear modest clothing, and not to go out alone on transit after 8:00.

The Times writes:

By any measure, the string of crimes has been terrible. A grandmother of three, walking her dog, raped along a riverbank. A 10-year-old boy sexually assaulted at a public swimming pool. A 21-year-old student gang raped near the giant Ferris wheel at Vienna’s famed Prater park. A 54-year-old woman beaten to death on the street.

The fact that the crimes were committed by recent migrants from war zones and an immigrant who had lived illegally in the country for years added an especially volatile element to the political climate ahead of the presidential election on Sunday, when Austria could become the first European country to elect a far-right candidate as head of state since the end of Nazism.

Nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment had already been whipped up by the surge of refugees who streamed into Austria last year. Now, the assaults and the coverage of them in the tabloid press could help the far-right presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer of the Austria’s Freedom Party, in what appears to be a tight race against Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader.

The Times is typical of media coverage in highlighting crime but ignoring demography.  The catastrophically low birthrates of Western Europe combined with the high birthrate of Muslim migrants has led to projections of huge Muslim shares of population within the lifetimes of many citizens.

Because the EU has been pressing member states to “do their part” in accepting Muslims demanding entry, support for the EU is plummeting.

Traditionally, the Austrian chancellor has been a primarily symbolic office, but Hofer has promised to strengthen it and use it to stem the transformation of Austria.

Whichever way the election goes, expect the media to engage in a lot of hand-wringing.

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