Brexit and migration loom large as Austria heads to polls again

"All of Europe feels relieved," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in May when Austrians voted for a Green president instead of a far-right eurosceptic one.

Now everyone can hold their breath once more. Austria's Constitutional Court has ordered a rerun of the runoff election between Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen and rightist Norbert Hofer because the first voting was tainted by irregularities.

There are some key outside factors that could change the balance between the two contenders, who were only 30,863 votes apart in May.

"Uncontrolled movements of migrants present the biggest risk" for Van der Bellen, who will face off against Hofer in a new vote in late September or early October, said Kathrin Stainer-Haemmerle, a political scientist at the Carinthia University of Applied Sciences in Klagenfurt.

Hofer's opposition Freedom Party has been buoyed as its anti-immigration stance has appealed to a sizeable share of the population.

Migration could play a role in the new election if a wave of migrants tried to reach neighbouring Austria in the coming weeks, and if EU countries fail to find common solutions to the migration issue, Stainer-Haemmerle told dpa.

Between June 23 and June 30, some 10,000 migrants arrived in Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Britain's vote to exit the European Union, or Brexit, is also expected to play into the Austrian presidential race.

On the one hand, Hofer has tried to appeal to voters by declaring that his party will use the threat of a similar referendum in Austria to push for a looser EU.

"If things move towards more centralism in the next year ... we would have to ask Austrians whether they still want to be members," he said shortly after the British referendum.

On the other hand, the Green party is trying to mobilize voters by highlighting the chaos that the Brexit vote has caused in Britain and in the EU.

"Right-wing populists used false arguments and even lies" to win the Brexit referendum, Green party chief Eva Glawischnig said after the Constitutional Court ordered a repeat of the presidential vote.

"The economic and political fallout of the Brexit referendum shows that we now have to form a broad alliance to fight and lobby for a common future in Austria and in Europe," she said.

However, the Freedom Party has been more active than the Greens in building international alliances over the past weeks.

In mid-June, the Freedom Party invited leaders from like-minded populist eurosceptic movements to Vienna for a "patriotic spring" conference.

The leader of the French National Front party, Marine Le Pen, took part in this gathering.

She congratulated the Freedom Party for having secured a rerun. The Austrian rightists had informed the Constitutional Court about the irregular handling of ballots and had challenged the May election.

"Following the fortunate Brexit victory in Britain and the rising euroscepticism in Italy, Austria now also has the chance to return to the path of liberty and national pride," she said in a statement.

Although migration and sentiments towards the European Union influenced the May election in Austria and could tip the balance in the rerun, there is one more reason why Hofer enjoys the support of nearly half of voters.

Polls show that many have supported opposition candidate Hofer to protest against the centrist government of social democrats and centre-right conservatives, who had failed to come up with solutions to Austria's growing unemployment and lacklustre economic performance.

The resignation of Social Democratic chancellor Werner Faymann in May, and the current popularity of his successor Christian Kern could help Van der Bellen.

Kern has previously said he would present the details of a "New Deal" to boost private and public investments by autumn. The presentation of this plan could now come in the final phase of the election race.

At the same time, Stainer-Haemmerle warned that the overall mood has not yet changed. "Discontent is extremely high. People are fed up," she said.

The Greens and the Freedom Party have yet to unveil their new campaign strategies, but they have made clear that they will fight to motivate voters to go to cast their ballots once again.

"It will not be boring," Hofer's campaign manager Herbert Kickl said about the new election.

He deed: "Suspense is guaranteed."

Last update: Sat, 02/07/2016 - 17:04

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