Alexander Van der Bellen becomes Austria’s New President

Austria has elected a new, Europe-loving president, Alexander Van der Bellen, a university economics professor and the Vienna-born son of refugees, who ran as an independent in this most unpredictable of races. In a virtual photo finish, Sunday’s lead of 51.9% lead for opponent Norbert Hofer had reversed by Monday afternoon, as the mailed ballots came in strongly for Van der Bellen, giving him a final 31,026 lead over Hofer: 2,254,484 to 2,223,458.

It had been down to the wire, as the former head of the Green Party nosed past his challenger over the finish line with an unusual alliance of Social Democrats, centrists, moderate conservatives and his loyal Greens.

Shortly after 5pm yesterday, a small crowd began to gather before the wrought-iron gates of Palais Schönburg in Vienna’s 4th district – Alexander van der Bellen’s presidential campaign headquarters. People of all ages had shown up, some clearly straight from work, many dressed casually on this balmy May evening, including a few dismounted cyclists, all milling about, waiting eagerly. A small army of journalists, many from abroad, patrolled the sun-splashed pavements, interviewing bystanders. A French TV crew stopped nearby, asking questions in broken German. “Yes,” replied the young Austrian standing next to me, “naturally, I was very worried… that Hofer might have won… It was so close!”

After a while, police officers trickled in and busied themselves with keeping the traffic flowing, with the 13A bus passing every few minutes with a full load of rush-hour passengers.

About 18:15, a large car bearing the slogan “Van der Bellen wählen” in extra-large letters arrived and the jubilant crowd erupted in loud cheers and clapping, as the newly-elected president drove into the grounds of Palais Schönburg. By then, presidential fans were outnumbered by police and the media, there to cover a story that was being seen as a bell-weather for the future of Europe.

No one understood that better than Van der Bellen.

Listening Across the Divide
“A lot of people in this country don’t feel seen or listened too enough, or both,” he told during his official speech earlier that day, “and we are going to need a new culture of dialogue, a politics that is not so self involved or involved with the public conversation in the media, but with these real questions, with the real concerns and fears, the rage that many in this country feel.” But, cautioned Van der Bellen, this dialogue has to go both ways. “When I listen to someone, I may also expect that that someone will listen to me.”

Throughout his campaign he had tried, he had told the crowd, “to stand for the things we share in Austria, to stand for that which joins us over that which separates, and that we will look after our democracy, for our Austria, together, but in all of our diversity, diversity of people and interests.”

Minutes passed, ten, twenty… and then the president-elect, composed and determined, strolled slowly across the Palais gardens followed by a buzzing retinue of political advisers and photographers. As he arrived near the entrance gate, the crowd exploded in whooping and whistling, swarming on him in a massive crush, but not so much to shake his hand as to take his picture.

With a tired smile and a wave, he quickly departed in his campaign limo, the worried officers looking decidedly relieved.

This is Austria
Just before sunset, another crowd assembled informally, this time on the Heldenplatz, to rejoice and hear a small band of Van der Bellen supporters who had composed a song for the occasion. But where was the huge crowd you might expect on such a momentous occasion? There had been no planned event, no announcement. Still, it felt somewhat like a let down. “Only two-hundred people!” a bearded Austrian hipster close by exclaimed to his friend in English. “This is Austria…” A French woman nearby shook her head ruefully and nodded.

But perhaps the locals are savvier than we starry-eyed expats. While this wafer-thin victory – which one of Van der Bellen’s supporters described as “the triumph of reason over fear,” may be cause for a deep sigh of relief, it was hardly the occasion for boundless celebration.

Sometime later, the party crowd moved on to Museumsquartier. “The FPÖ was certainly skilled at putting out inflated stories,” commented a German colleague, “like the one turning a foot injury into a fatality” – referring to an bizarre incident at the wailing wall in Jerusalem. A thirty-something Hungarian, agreed: “The trouble is, you can’t take back fake stories once they’re running around,” he lamented, as we all introduced ourselves. The Hungarian, who had spent over 10 years in Vienna as a computer programmer, was himself an “economic migrant” – not so different from some of those the stricter refugee policy is designed to turn away. But, of course, it’s in large part simply a question of numbers.

Austria has come a long way since the beginning of the Second Republic in 1945. “But how is it going to counter the scaremongering?” wondered my colleague. “It’s all so contrived…” and then gets amplified by a gutter press he finds particularly nauseating.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Van der Bellen had said. “There are two halves that make up [this country] – the one half is as important as the other… And it is together that we add up to this beautiful Austria.”