Austrians are choosing Sunday between a moderate and a populist for president — and both candidates are hoping to exploit the Trump effect in the first European Union nation facing such a choice since the U.S. election.
Surveys show most Austrians think that populist Norbert Hofer stands to benefit to the detriment of left-leaning candidate Alexander Van der Bellen in the Dec. 4 vote. Whoever wins, the election has significance beyond who will claim the largely ceremonial post.
How the Trump bump plays out here could be a barometer of its resonance in other countries with upcoming national elections that also feature strong populist and euroskeptic contenders inspired by the U.S. billionaire’s triumph in the U.S. presidential election.
French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has welcomed the Trump victory as a “sign of hope,” while xenophobe Geert Wilders, who hopes to become prime minister in the Netherlands, has hailed the Trump “revolution.”
At his hate-speech trial, Wilders described Trump’s victory as the start of a movement “making short shrift of the politically correct doctrines of the elite and their subordinate media.”
“It’s about to be proven in Austria,” he added.
Van der Bellen won the vote earlier this year. But it is being re-run by a court order on claims by Hofer’s Freedom Party of major irregularities, and with Trump’s victory still fresh in the minds of Austria’s electorate both candidates hope to benefit.
Van der Bellen says he hopes that Trump’s triumph will serve as a “wake-up call” to vote for him and against Hofer.
Hofer, whose support ranges from voters disaffected with the political establishment to the neo-Nazi fringe, greeted the U.S. election result as a victory for democracy, blasting opponents who “wildly berate” Trump.
Of 800 Austrian respondents in a Gallup survey with a margin of error of 3.5 percent, 53 percent say the Trump victory will benefit Hofer, with only 9 percent thinking it will help Van der Bellen, and the rest undecided.
Potential voters on the streets of Vienna, however, say the “Trump effect” could cut both ways.
“I would think it helps Hofer,” said Fanny Holzer, 19, and Van der Bellen supporter. “On the other hand, if you consider the nonsense that Trump could do, then maybe Van der Bellen.”
Others said the U.S. election result has not affected whom they will vote for.
“I remain with the choice I made originally,” said Leo Ebner, 67. “America is a good distance away from Austria.”
Anne della Rossa, in her early 40s, said many U.S. voters backed Trump because “people think he will give them something because he is rich.”
“I don’t think he will influence smart Austrians,” she added.
Analyst Thomas Hofer, who isn’t related to the candidate, also downplays the Trump factor. He says that while immigration concerns and terrorism fears were common in both campaigns “domestic political themes in Austria” are playing a greater role in deciding the Dec. 4 vote.
He also notes that whereas Trump dumped any pretense of political correctness in his attacks on Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Norbert Hofer has worked to soften his image to appeal to undecided voters opposed to the euroskeptic, rabidly anti-immigrant stance of his Freedom Party.
While Hofer has pounded law-and-order and anti-immigrant messages at rallies, Hofer the analyst says the populist “has tried to sketch his hard message in softer terms” in television debates that show him as “friendly and obliging.”
Van der Bellen says “the nastiness in the Austrian campaign is comparatively harmless” when measured against the mudslinging in the United States.
But there is no denying a harsher tone from the Freedom Party since Trump’s triumph. On Facebook, it placed a Van der Bellen campaign poster against an alpine backdrop with a photo of Hitler in similar surroundings.
In response, Van der Bellen campaign manager Lothar Lockl commented on “methods possibly used by Mr. Trump … but which should have no place in Austria.”
The effectiveness of such attacks is unclear. Still, with hundreds of thousands of Austrian voters still undecided, even a slight bounce from the U.S. election could be decisive in a race that for now is too close to call.
“Not many voters are going to be influenced by Trump’s success,” political scientist Anton Pelinka said. “But even the smallest shifts could be decisive in this close contest.”