VIENNA — Austria’s presidential election has significance far beyond the small EU nation’s borders. In a scenario that was unthinkable just a few years ago, a right-wing, Euroskeptic candidate is favored to become president.
Such a development would be the latest sign of political upheaval in a country that until recently appeared to be solidly in the pro-European Union camp.
Europe’s right-wing is gaining strength among citizens both disillusioned with establishment parties and increasingly distrustful of the EU’s ability to fix stagnating economies, joblessness and the migrant crisis.
Here are some things to know as Austrians prepare to elect a new president Sunday.
WHAT CAN THE PRESIDENT DO?
Austria’s post-World War II presidents have been generally content with ceremonial functions — greeting incoming ambassadors, cutting ribbons, hosting visiting dignitaries and giving rubber-stamp approvals of new governments formed by the strongest political party. But a president in Austria can also wield significant clout: He can dismiss governments and parliament on his own — and both candidates say they are prepared to use the more potent tools at their disposal.
Put forward by the populist anti-EU Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, a 47-year-old lawmaker, is the front-runner in polls just days before the vote.
Hofer has threatened to dismiss Austria’s government coalition of Social Democrats and the centrist People’s Party if it fails to heed his repeated admonitions to do a better job — and is casting himself as the final arbiter of how the government is performing. With his Freedom Party now outpolling the government parties in popularity, he could be tempted to dismiss the government in order to give the Freedom Party the chance to win an ensuing election.
But Hofer’s rival also could upend the traditionally cozy relationship between Austrian presidents and governments. Running as an independent, Alexander van der Bellen, a professorial 72-year-old Greens Party member, has said he would not swear in a Freedom Party chancellor even if that party wins an election that must take place within the next two years. That, too, could create political upheaval and uncertainty unseen in post-war Austria.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
First-round voting last month revealed the depth of the electorate’s disdain for the Social Democrats and the People’s Party. Those parties have dominated postwar politics, and up to now, Austria’s president has always had the backing of one of them. But both their candidates were trounced in the initial round, which was won by Hofer with more than 35 percent support.
Decades of bickering over key issues — most recently tax, pension and education reforms — have fed perceptions of political stagnation. The migrant influx last year also forced the coalition government to swing from having open borders to becoming one of the EU’s most restrictive asylum regimes.
That shift not only failed to stem pro-Freedom Party sentiment, it also caused a revolt within the Social Democratic party that led to the resignation last week of Chancellor Werner Faymann.
His successor, Christian Kern, wants to walk a fine line between more humane treatment of refugees and the Faymann position. That already tough goal may be even more difficult to realize should Hofer win and make good on his promise of unprecedented pressure on the government.
EUROPE IS WATCHING
Most Austrian elections have been pretty well ignored outside the country. Not this time.
Hofer’s first-round victory is the latest evidence of the growing strength of Euroskeptic, anti-establishment parties across the 28-nation European Union. For pro-European politicians, the trend is a worrying sign of what could happen in Austria’s next general election, and elections elsewhere within the EU. Parties across the political spectrum will be watching Sunday’s election closely.
Hofer’s first-round win last month was met by dismay from European establishment parties — and jubilant tweets of support from Marine Le Pen of France’s right-wing National Front and Freedom Party ideological bedfellows elsewhere.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.