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In Liberal Vienna, Youth Fear Austria’s Presidential Re-run

  • Heather Murdock

A woman walks past election posters of Norbert Hofer, candidate for presidential elections of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, FPOe, in Vienna, Austria, April 19, 2016. The posters read "Your country needs you now."

A woman walks past election posters of Norbert Hofer, candidate for presidential elections of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, FPOe, in Vienna, Austria, April 19, 2016. The posters read "Your country needs you now."

In the fall of 2015, the international news was flooded with pictures of an Austrian train station where volunteers welcomed refugees with food, clothing and games for children.

Almost a year later, the train station now welcomes commuters and tourists. Media coverage focuses on a growing anti-immigration political movement poised to take another crack at the Austrian presidency.

At a quiet park in Vienna, Jesse de Pagter, a 23-year-old philosophy student from the Netherlands, said the outpouring of sympathy for refugees may have been a catalyst for an outpouring of intolerance.

“It may have been the positive image that made the contrary true,” he said. “It’s an image of a divided country.”

On Friday, an Austrian court canceled the results of the country’s May presidential elections, citing widespread rule breaking. The re-vote, scheduled for the fall, essentially gives Austria’s Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, another chance at becoming the European Union’s first far-right head of state.

In central Vienna, a city that has consistently - and uniquely within Austria - voted against the Freedom Party. Henrik Neumayer, 17, has had a vote since he was 16-years-old. When asked who he supported in the upcoming election, he winced like he has just swallowed a rotten egg. “Ehh, I think I don’t like either of them,” he said.

At his side, on the park bench by a serene duck pond, 16-year-old Sara Maksim is more certain. As far as she is concerned, Hofer is a racist, campaigning on impractical anti-immigrant policies. “I think he just wants a second chance to get elected.I hate him,” she said.

FILE - Alexander Van der Bellen, winner of Austria's presidential election, waves to his supporters in Vienna, May 23, 2016.

FILE - Alexander Van der Bellen, winner of Austria's presidential election, waves to his supporters in Vienna, May 23, 2016.

“Van der Bellen?” then says Neumayer, speaking of 72-year-old recently rescinded president-elect, the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen. He is a former economics professor who supports gay rights and open borders, winning the overturned election by about 1 percent of the vote. “Actually I don’t know what he wants.”

Maksim pondered momentarily and laughed. “I don’t know what he wants either. But Hofer, no. Just no,” she said.

Hofer is a 45-year-old trained aviation engineer often called the “friendly face” of the far right party and known for describing his staunch anti-immigrant policies in more moderate language than his party's leadership.

“I think [Hofer] somehow wants to unite our country. But I don’t think he can do it,” said Neumayer.

Beyond Austria

At bench near the park exit, de Pagter from the Netherlands and his friend, 22-year-old Italian Damiano Ranzanigo, also a philosophy student in Vienna, rest after a night on the town. The university is closed for the summer.

They may not be able to vote in the upcoming election, but they said that the consequences of a Freedom Party win for their countries could be, in their view, terrible.

“It’s a very bad sign because it makes the rhetoric in other countries stronger,” said de Pagter. Nationalist, and specifically anti-Islamic, political movements have been growing steadily across the continent and in the United States since the Paris attacks last November. “You just need a few other terrorist attacks and they will become more severe,” de Pagter added.

FILE - A man passes by presidential election campaign posters of Alexander Van der Bellen (L), supported by the Greens, reading "A president who unites" and Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe), reading "The voice of reason" in Vienna, Austria, May 19, 2016.

FILE - A man passes by presidential election campaign posters of Alexander Van der Bellen (L), supported by the Greens, reading "A president who unites" and Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe), reading "The voice of reason" in Vienna, Austria, May 19, 2016.


A victory for the Freedom Party could empower these movements as they seek to gain political power, despite the fact that the Austrian presidency is largely considered a symbolic office. Also, Austria is expected hold parliamentary elections within the next two and a half years, a vote that could be influenced by the success or failure of the growing right.

“There are a lot of people taking them seriously,” said Ranzanigo, speaking of European right-wing parties in general. Besides having more concrete plans, right-wing parties nowadays don’t sound as extreme as their predecessors, making them palatable to a larger audience.

“They are always trying to stay politically correct. They don’t want to be called xenophobic,” he said.

In a nearby grassy field, two brothers - both refugees from Syria - are reluctant to talk about the upcoming elections, or the uncertain future they face after fleeing a gruesome war to a country that was once more welcoming.

“It could be a catastrophe,” said one brother before walking away. “But it’s not for us to decide.”

Correction: An earlier draft of this article said an Australian court overturned the results. It was an Austrian court. VOA regrets the error.

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