How people elect parliaments
Independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen’s re-win in the re-run of the ballot for President of Austria has calmed European nerves, with his final victory over the far-right Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer being seen as a defeat for the forces of populism that have become a feature of 2016.
But it ought not be forgotten that Van der Bellen himself represents a revolt against established mainstream politics.
Incoming Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen, elected in both of two votes this year
Austria’s main political parties – the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the centre-right Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) – have between them governed Austria in turns since the second world war. But in the 2013 election of the Nationalrat – the National Council, the lower chamber of the Austrian parliament – their combined vote share – 37% of the electorate – was the lowest ever.
36% of those electing parties to the current Nationalrat in 2013 preferred minor parties, including the Freedom Party and the Greens. 26% of registered electors did not vote at all.
When it came this year to electing the national President – a mainly ceremonial role – the candidates put forward by the SPÖ and ÖVP each scored a pathetic 7% of the electorate’s support.
In that initial round of voting in April, respected legal figure and independent candidate Irmgard Griss won nearly 13%. Economist and former Green Party leader Van Der Bellen won 14%, and the Freedom Party’s Hofer led with nearly 24%.
The national, and indeed EU-wide, political establishment reeled in shock that a far-right candidate could place first in an election. And all this was still two months before the Brexit vote happened in late June.
On May 22, at the second round of voting in the two-round runoff system, some establishment relief came when the more urbane Van Der Bellen narrowly defeated Hofer, 35.4% of the electorate to 34.5% (29.9% not voting).
In the circumstances Van der Bellen, now widely considered a respectable and appropriate candidate for the national head of state role, had morphed from a Green-backed independent into the savior of European political stability.
The fact that 85% of the electorate had not initially considered the leading party candidates as suitable for the office could now be put to one side.
As it happened, the presidential election was not over. The nation’s constitutional court ruled on July 1 that administrative errors in managing some postal votes had tainted the conduct of the second round of voting. The defects were non-partisan, and the ruling resulted in only modest political argument, but in any case the final May 22 two-candidate round of voting was set aside and a re-run was ordered for later in the year.
On December 4 that re-run, coming after Brexit, the victory of Donald Trump in the US and much other European existential angst, saw Van der Bellen noticeably increase his lead.
On the latest (but not necessarily final) postal vote counting, Van Der Bellen has improved his support from 35.3% to 38.6% of the electorate over the two elections. Hofer’ support went backwards slightly from May, down from 34.5% to 33.2%.
Non-voting by the Austrian electorate (which has grown slightly in the six months between polls) fell a little, from 29.9% to 28.2%. Late postal votes may reduce this category further.
Austria’s presidential election may have been a defeat for the far-right or populist right, but it fits squarely within 2016’s world-wide theme of rejection of mainstream major parties in democratic elections.
Van der Bellen is a more moderate form of popular independent, but he is still the first Green Party-backed leader ever elected to a chief national office in any world election.
The next Austrian parliamentary election will be in 2018.