With contributions pouring in, Alexander Van der Bellen is out to win the Hofburg – again – and help set the tone for Europe’s future
On a brilliantly sunny day in early August, Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen set off with a group of reporters and photographers over the mountain paths of the Kaunerberg, wedged between Italy and Switzerland at 1,963 meters above sea level, in the furthest corner of Austria. Here among the stunning vistas of his childhood, now familiar from campaign posters, the former Green Party leader talked about his love for the countryside, about the election, the refugee crisis and the future of the EU.
And perhaps indirectly, suggested Thomas Vieregge, of the Austrian daily, Die Presse, to put to rest an “assassination campaign” in the social media suggesting that, at 72, advancing age and poor health might be getting the better of him.
It has been a long campaign by Austrian standards – at nine months, the longest ever in the history of the Second Republic. It has also been one of the strangest: After all, Van der Bellen has won the election once already, back in May, when a slim election-day lead for his far-right opponent Norbert Hofer, was reversed the following afternoon as the postal ballots turned the results narrowly in his favor. But delays in the vote count led to a legal challenge and a decision by the Constitutional Court, in the wake of the U.K. “Brexit” referendum, to require a new election, “to protect democracy and the rule of law.”
Well, maybe. Many Austrians are irritated, or at least mystified, by the decision, with some claiming that they would stay home, or hand in blank ballots, in protest. Few believe many will actually do this, but the grumbling reflects the court’s likely misreading of public skepticism. Following the British vote, Hofer tested for anti-EU sentiment here, saying a referendum would be appropriate in Austria if the EU were to “evolve in the wrong direction.” The media jumped down his throat while polls showed a majority supported continued membership. Hofer backtracked, claiming he had been misunderstood.
The ground is shifting, not least because of the popularity of the new social-democratic chancellor Christian Kern. According to Der Standard, if this Sunday were election day, he would get 37 percent of the vote, far more than his own party, or any other candidate. The Wunderkind Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) has also earned high marks for straight talk on managing migration and enforcing cultural norms. As a result, the two coalition parties are gaining, just as Hofer’s support, largely based on fear and disappointment in former leaders, has begun to leak away.
By August 18, over €1 million, mostly from small donors, had poured into Van der Bellen’s campaign coffers, exceeding all expectations. But the stakes are high: This presidential re-election is in real part about the future of the EU.
Back on the mountain, Van der Bellen looked around his “three-cornered valley.” Here, he told the reporters, was evidence that Austria can – must – never isolate itself from the Europe that surrounds it.