Newsmaker: Alexander Van der Bellen

The new Austrian president-elect this week triumphed over his anti-immigration, anti-EU, far-right rival Norbert Hofer. The former Green Party leader is himself the son of refugees.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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Whatever else Alexander Van der Bellen achieves in political office, he will, at least to his supporters, be the man who saved Austria from being the first country in the European Union to elect a far-right head of state.

The 72-year-old’s path to power has already become etched into the fabric of western European politics. Today’s ­Austrian president-­elect was the Green-backed independent who looked on course to suffer a defeat to Norbert Hofer, his far-right Freedom Party opponent. Gun-enthusiast Hofer, at 45 and with a youthful air, could have been forgiven for sizing up the curtains at Austria’s presidential palace after winning the popular vote by the slimmest of majorities on Sunday. Yet, it was the following day’s postal votes that soon thwarted Hofer’s bid to presidential glory and catapulted Van der Bellen to office. Among the 4.64 million votes cast across the land, the pro-EU candidate secured victory by only 31,000 votes – or by 50.3 per cent versus 49.7 per cent. A mandate to rule, but only just.

As the postal votes were being counted, it wasn’t just Austrians who were watching the contest, but millions across Europe. Observers who were alarmed that Hofer could clinch the presidency took to social media to express their horror at the prospect of the anti-EU politician, who had played on fears about migrants during his campaign and pledged to stop the ­“Muslim invasion”, making history for the far-right. The relief from many on Twitter was palpable. The “new Austrian president is … most importantly not a far-right nut-job. Well done!” wrote one. Not all, however, were so pleased. Another tweeted: “Tens of thousands of votes from the non-white population pushed the communist/Green candidate over the finishing line.”

In the aftermath of the result, Hofer Facebook-messaged his supporters with the words: “Please don’t be disheartened. The effort in this election campaign is not wasted, but is an investment for the future.”

Van der Bellen, on the other hand, took to the winner’s podium to acknowledge his own responsibility as the country’s new head of state and to pay “respect” to his opponent who had called him a “fascist Green dictator”.

Indeed, Van der Bellen’s ascension to this largely ceremonial role in Austrian politics, where the country’s chancellor (prime minister) is the head of government, was hailed by Green politicians across the European continent. While officially an independent, this tousled leftist liberal had led Austria’s Green Party for a decade, and his victory has made him Europe’s first elected Green head of state. Yet the election has also given a real boon to the far right, and to Austria’s controversial but popular Freedom Party, which after successfully tapping into Austrian fears about the migrant crisis, has placed itself in a good position to win the state’s 2018 general election. For Van der Bellen, who pitched his campaign ahead of his election with the words “I ask all those who don’t like me but perhaps like Hofer even less to vote for me”, his tenure as president will begin in a deeply divided nation.

Van der Bellen was born in ­January 1944, in the Austrian capital Vienna, but his family’s journey there was marked by upheaval. His father, ­Alexander, who was of mixed Baltic-­German, Dutch and Estonian heritage, was an aristocrat from Russia, although the Van der Bellen surname appears to originate from another part of Europe – the Netherlands – when an 18th-century relative moved from there to Russia. Once in Russia, the Van der ­Bellen family soon joined the ranks of aristocrats, but in 1919, his grandparents, father and uncles fled the Bolshevik Red Army and headed to Estonia, where they were forced to change the spelling of their name from “Von” to “Van”: “Von” as an indicator of Russian nobility wasn’t tolerated in a newly independent Estonia, where all vestiges of aristocratic privileges had been scrapped.

His father and mother, Alma, who was Estonian, fled Estonia after the Soviet Invasion in 1940, spending time in a refugee camp before ending up in Vienna, where their son was born. Soon afterwards, the Van der Bellens uprooted again to the Austrian state of Tyrol, where the self-­declared “child of refugees” spent his childhood.

Multiculturalism is at the heart of Austria’s new president-elect – and has almost certainly shaped the man and his politics.

After decades in academia, which earned him the nickname “The Professor”, this former member of the Austrian ­Social Democratic Party was first elected to Austrian parliament for the Green Party in 1994. His interest in the Green cause was awakened in the mid-1980s after activists attempted to block a power plant project in ­Austria. In 1997, he assumed the role of the party’s leader. Under his guidance, the Greens performed well, but Van der Bellen, who was labelled a “turncoat” by his opponents because of his previous affiliation with the Social Democrats, quit in 2008 when his party registered a loss of votes in the country’s election. An MP for 18 years, he left parliament in 2012, joining the Vienna City Council.

Van der Bellen’s battle to secure power began last month in the first round of the presidential election. Here, Hofer topped the poll with more than 30 per cent of the vote, with Van der Bellen coming second. The centre-left Social Democrats and centre-right People’s ­Party were humiliated. It was the first time since the end of the Second World War that both of the “big two” parties in Austria had failed to make it to the presidential run-off. It resulted in the resignation of Social Democrat chancellor Werner Faymann, after he lost the support of his party colleagues. Faymann had been in power since 2008, but came under criticism from his own party in the aftermath of Hofer’s first-round victory at the ballot box.

With no clear winner in the first round, that left the two opposite ends of Austria’s political spectrum to slug it out. It was Europe in microcosm, with unabashed Europhile and equal-rights champion Van der Bellen, who revealed a penchant for Donald Duck comics and cigarettes, ­taking on Hofer, a hardened anti-­EU Islamophobe and a smooth-talking, gun-happy, far-right campaigner who walks with a stick because of a hand-gliding accident.

Days before the second round of voting began, both men took part in a televised debate where they were used as guinea pigs for an experiment in Austrian broadcasting. It saw Van der ­Bellen and Hofer battle it out, chess-match-style, with no chairperson and no set agenda on a minimalist set. The insults soon began to fly with Hofer pitching in with: “I didn’t start my candidature with a lie, like you.” Van der Bellen uttered the words: “I’m talking about Europe: E-U-R-O-P-E. Never heard of it?” Whoever prevailed in this week’s vote was destined to make history. And it was Van der Bellen, who will become the first person to occupy the presidential palace from neither the ­Social Democrats or People’s Party in 70 years.

Austria hasn’t been spared the buffeting of the migrant crisis – 90,000 people (mostly Muslims), or the equivalent to 1 per cent of Austria’s population, claimed asylum in the country last year. But rather than the far-right Hofer dominating the next six years with his anti-migrant sentiments, it will be Van der Bellen’s more inclusive attitude that will fill the role of Austria’s head of state. Compare Hofer’s scorn for Berlin and Brussels with their “irresponsible and dangerous” policy of admitting refugees to Van der Bellen’s outlook before he secured victory: “I have been pro-European during the five months of campaigning. I made clear how important the European Union is for freedom, security and prosperity – also in Austria.”

Yet Van der Bellen’s success has done little to hide Austria’s deeply polarised stance within the EU family. Indeed, today’s ­Austria has once again laid bare ­Europe’s frailties – of the migrant crisis, the role of the EU and the economy – and the sharp views that exist in how to deal with them. In his homeland, however, Van der Bellen is unapologetic about his own stance on the migrant issue. “You can’t really expect me, a child of refugees, to say that my parents should have been turned away,” he said last month.

The potency of the Freedom Party and the country’s far-right sentiments are not a new phenomenon in this German-speaking republic of 8.7 million people. Right-wing populist groups have made gains across other parts of Europe, too, tapping into fears of migrants and what many see as the overbearing hand of the EU. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU is scheduled to take place on June 23.

It’s against this backdrop – both national and European – that Van der Bellen, a divorced father of two adult sons, who last year married a woman also allied to the Green cause, has taken office. For his supporters, his ascension to Austrian head of state has validated the hopes and dreams of a progressive ­Europe. For his far-right detractors, his exceptionally slender victory is nothing more than a bump in the road towards the realisation of a new political dawn.

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