Austrian president set for re-election after Russia U-turn

Former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen expected to win on Sunday

Austria's President Alexander van der Bellen (C) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) inspect a military honor guard at the Presidential palace in Vienna, Austria, on June 5, 2018.  / AFP / JOE KLAMAR
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One of the world’s few green party heads of state is poised to win a second term as president of Austria after abandoning Russian sympathies to take a firm line on the war in Ukraine.

Alexander Van der Bellen, 78, is the heavy favourite to win a second six-year term when voting booths close on Sunday. An array of insurgent candidates saw their challenges fizzle out and he has campaigned as a pillar of stability in troubled times.

Mr Van der Bellen has hopes this grandfatherly image will produce victory with a November run-off.

“If things go well, I’m going to get more votes than all six of my competitors combined,” he said. “If I don’t get my wish, well, then I’ll just win four weeks later. I don’t want that. I want to win this Sunday.”

His main rival, Freedom Party candidate Walter Rosenkranz, was so flat in a final debate that one pundit said he would never have guessed Mr Rosenkranz was a right-wing populist.

As unrest grows over high energy prices linked to the war in Ukraine, Mr Van der Bellen said in a recent state-of-the-nation speech that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “attacking our way of life”.

The drive to save energy has led to Vienna’s Christmas markets being shortened this year and thrown the opening of a popular ice rink into doubt.

Mr Van der Bellen has taken the opportunity to push his party’s environmental agenda, calling for more renewable energy and green hydrogen to replace Russian gas.

But he invited criticism by saying Austrians should “grit their teeth” and ride out the crisis, with opponents saying the president did not understand the problems of ordinary people.

A poster telling Austrians to 'vote Van der Bellen' hangs next to a tram line in Vienna. AP

His strident tone towards Russia since it invaded Ukraine on February 24 marks a change compared to some of Mr Van der Bellen’s earlier rhetoric.

In a 2015 book, he said “irresponsible talk” of Ukraine joining Nato was partly to blame for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, echoing a prime Kremlin grievance.

As president, he hosted Mr Putin in Vienna in 2018. They opened an exhibition of Russian art that was sponsored by gas company Gazprom that was described by Mr Van der Bellen as a symbol of friendship with Moscow.

“This exhibition can teach us to understand that Russia is a part of Europe,” said Mr Van der Bellen, whose parents were Russian and Estonian exiles who fled the Soviet Union.

Like many European presidents, Mr Van der Bellen does not make day-to-day decisions but oversees the political process and is seen as a moral spokesman for his country.

Since February, he has changed his tune by condemning the Russian invasion, describing the massacres in Bucha as crimes against humanity and insisting that sanctions against Russia are working.

This year’s race has had none of the drama of six years ago, when Mr Van der Bellen beat pistol-carrying far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in a knife-edge contest that went to three rounds after judges annulled the result of a run-off.

Some pundits have bemoaned a lack of focus on issues such as crime and migration. Days before the election, Chancellor Karl Nehammer struck a deal with Hungary and Serbia to limit asylum claims from South-Eastern Europe.

One of the minor candidates, Gerald Grosz, tells voters that a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis is on the cards and that he would use the president’s powers to sack Mr Nehammer’s government.

Presidential candidate and punk rock singer Dominik Wlazny poses with a campaign poster in Vienna. EPA

Activists on the left meanwhile staged a symbolic poll for people without Austrian passports to make their voices heard.

Voters in the “no-matter-what-passport” election queued up to cast ballots as a horse and cart went past in Vienna.

Selim Aslan, a former university professor who has lived in Austria for 35 years, felt excluded after his passport application was denied on the grounds that he had too many research stints abroad on his CV.

“I personally feel closely attached to Austria and would love to be able to help decide the fate of this country,” said Dr Aslan, originally from Turkey, in a message of support for the ballot.

The far-right Mr Rosenkranz is campaigning on a message of “taking back our freedom”, as his party calls for sanctions against Russia to be put to a referendum.

But his demands that all remaining coronavirus restrictions must go and that neutral Austria should pursue peace talks instead of sanctions have failed to put much of a dent in Mr Van der Bellen’s poll lead.

Dominik Wlazny, a satirical candidate and punk rock singer who goes by the stage name Marco Pogo, is third in the polls but likewise failed to inspire on television.

Mr Wlazny was “too well behaved” and acted like a “model student” in the final debate, said pollster Wolfgang Bachmaier on a late-night talk show.

Updated: October 09, 2022, 11:00 AM