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FPÖ failure shows opposition to rightward surge

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FPÖ failure shows opposition to rightward surge
Norbert Hofer, the failed FPÖ presidential candidate for Austria. Photo: Freedom Party
14:10 CEST+02:00
While far-right parties across Europe hailed the near-election of one of their own as Austrian president as a boost for their future prospects, his defeat shows that mainstream forces are still capable of rallying to keep extremists out of power.

Norbert Hofer from Austria's anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPOe), failed by a whisker in Sunday's election to become the European Union's first far-right head of state, with only 31,000 votes between him and power.

As European mainstream leaders breathed a hugh sigh of relief, far-right politicians from around the EU also cheered the result, seeing it as a sign of things to come in the debt-wracked continent struggling with its worst migrant crisis since World War II.

France's National Front (FN), one of Europe's most successful far-right movements, said the "historic performance" was a "precursor of future success for all patriotic movements, both in Austria and around the world".

Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders also tweeted his congratulations, while Matteo Salvini, head of Italy's populist Northern League which is allied with the FPOe and FN in the European Parliament, said the "air of freedom" was blowing through Europe.

What particularly heartened the far-right was the dismal performance of the two mainstream centre-right and centre-left Austrian parties, which have dominated politics there for decades and which form the current governing coalition.

They were forced to watch the presidential runoff from the sidelines after being knocked out in the first round.

Andrew Wishart from Capital Economics said much of their loss in support -- they are trailing the FPOe in opinion polls -- is due to a "muddled immigration policy".

The FN hopes this could be a harbinger for the 2017 presidential election in France, where it hopes to capitalise on the deep unpopularity of Francois Hollande's Socialists and the centre-right opposition.

'Only victory counts'

However, many believe that the Austrian result shows that while the far-right is knocking on the doors of power, there is a long way to go before smashing them down.

Rather than point to the 2017 French election, some analysts look to 2002, where Socialist voters reluctantly threw their support behind the centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac to ensure he defeated then FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the runoff.

A similar pattern occurred in December's regional elections in France, where the far-right tasted success in the first round but were badly beaten in the second, decisive, round of voting.

"In politics, only the victory counts. A defeat is a defeat," stressed historian and far-right expert Nicolas Lebourg.

In Austria, Hofer was a full 14 points ahead of ecologist rival Alexander Van der Bellen after the first round of voting but still came up short in the decisive battle.

Nevertheless, Lebourg said the far-right's success had had the effect of dragging mainstream parties to the right in a bid to compete.

"During the campaign, Austrian politicians ran after the refugee question" and other far-right issues.

"In recent European history... this comes back to bite you every time. Electoral history shows that by trying to attract their voters, you actually give them a helping hand," the historian said.

'Firebrand or flip-flopper?'

Heather Grabbe, an expert in populist parties at the European University Institute in Florence, agreed, saying that the rise of populism had prompted many governments in Europe -- the Netherlands and Sweden, and also Austria -- to change tack.

But, she said, this can be a high-risk strategy, as Werner Faymann, who quit as Austria's chancellor on May 9, found out.

"They can never go far enough to fend off the populists," Grabbe told AFP. 

"Voters prefer a firebrand to a flip-flopper."

And while far-right parties appear to be facing a form of glass ceiling when it comes to seizing power, they are still in power-sharing administrations in several countries with a tradition of coalition government.

The FPOe has been part of coalitions in Austria's Burgenland state, which borders Hungary, and for several years in the early 2000s were part of the government in Vienna, a "black-blue" coalition with the centre-right OeVP.

In Norway, Denmark, and Finland, populist parties have all entered coalitions, and in Italy, the Northern League was long part of former leader Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition.

And Hungary's Fidesz party and conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban has run the country with a junior coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, since late 2015.

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