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Austria Poised to Elect Rightist as Europe Braces for More Political Earthquakes

  • Henry Ridgwell

The U.S. election victory of Donald Trump was warmly welcomed by far-right politicians across the globe — nowhere more so than in Europe, where a series of upcoming polls could deliver big shocks to established political parties.

First up is Austria on December 4, where Norbert Hofer is hoping to ride a global wave of insurgent populism to win the Austrian presidency and become the first far-right head of state in Europe since World War II.

Speaking this month, he borrowed a key theme from Trump's campaign, saying that that whenever the elites distance themselves from voters, those elites will be voted out of office.

Connecting globally

Hofer's far-right Freedom Party has warned of a civil war over migration. His extreme rhetoric is winning votes; polls give him a slim lead over his rival, the Green Party's Alexander Van der Bellen. European historian Andrea Mammone of Royal Holloway, University of London, said the far right is connecting globally.

"Politicians are playing with these fears," Mammone said. "They are actually offering a new model of identification. And this model of identification is going back. Going back to golden lands. Even if they never existed."

FILE - French far-right leader Marine Le Pen makes a statement on the presidential election in the U.S., in Nanterre, outside Paris, Nov. 9, 2016.

FILE - French far-right leader Marine Le Pen makes a statement on the presidential election in the U.S., in Nanterre, outside Paris, Nov. 9, 2016.

'Campaigns of fear'

In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, has promised to turn back the clock to the days before the European Union and global free trade. She says Britain's vote to leave the EU and Trump's victory have given her momentum.

"The British and the American people dismissed these patronizing campaigns, these campaigns of fear," she told reporters this week, adding: "I'm convinced that the French people can, too."

France's two-round election system has so far kept the far right out of power. But 2016 has shown that past voting patterns are a poor guide to modern politics, Mammone said.

"Many people are feeling that maybe it is worth voting for these protest movements because this vote might eventually count, and this vote may eventually change things, or at least this vote may eventually shake power," Mammone said.

Connection to Putin

Critics point to a common ally of the far right on both sides of the Atlantic: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian banks have given Le Pen multimillion-dollar loans to fight her campaign.

"Putin is willing to fund all these far-right movements because they cannot only make pressure in the European Union context, but I think that it is also a matter of, in national societies, what they can say about Russia," Mammone said.

That sympathy for Moscow is echoed by the political opposition in Italy, which smells victory in a referendum scheduled December 4 on constitutional change, a result that could topple Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

In the Netherlands, the far-right Freedom Party tops the polls ahead of 2017 elections, despite the ongoing trial of its leader, Geert Wilders, on charges of inciting racial hatred.

For now, all eyes are on Austria, which could deliver the first of a series of electoral earthquakes in Europe.

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