Austrian election highlights Europe's growing divide

by Onize Ohikere
Posted 4/25/16, 03:26 pm

Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party candidate emerged as the lead in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday. The win marks the first time in 71 years that neither of the two mainstream parties made it to the runoff, highlighting the growing discontent with the country’s political leaders.

The anti-immigration Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer led the preliminary polls with 36 percent of the vote. Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent candidate and former leader of the left-wing Greens party, came in second with 20 percent of the vote. Hofer and Van der Bellen likely will face each other in the May 22 runoff.

“This is the beginning of a new era,” Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache told the AFP, describing the results as “historic.”

The candidates from the ruling Social Democratic Party and the conservative People’s Party each received 11 percent of the vote. The results show the growing dissatisfaction with the country’s long-ruling parties, especially after tens of thousands of migrants arrived in Europe last summer. Europeans worry the rising number of migrants could heighten unemployment in the region’s already unstable economy and lead to more terrorist attacks.

In Austria, Hofer has pledged to strengthen the country’s borders and its military, favor Austrians in the job market, and limit benefits for immigrants. Despite the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping Europe, Austria’s attempt to tighten border controls at the Alpine Brenner Pass isn’t popular with its neighbors.

Hundreds of Italian protesters, including some leftist politicians, gathered at the shared border on Sunday to protest the border-control measures. Some wore orange lifejackets in solidarity with migrants who often cross from Turkey to Greece on dangerously flimsy fishing boats. On April 3, two Austrian police officers suffered injuries during a similar protest at the border.

Austria plans to tighten border controls at the Brenner Pass no later than June 1 as it anticipates the arrival of another surge of migrants. Italy complains the plan will breach EU rules on the free movement of people. The Brenner Pass serves as a major trade channel but also as a route for migrants fleeing north.

As U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up his six-day trip to the Middle East and Britain, he called for unity among the European countries.

“In the vacuum, if we do not solve these problems, you start seeing those who would try to exploit these fears and frustrations and channel them in a destructive way,” Obama said during a stop today in Germany.

Obama’s European visit comes amid the region’s battles with the migration crisis, as well as the possibility of terror attacks following recent incidents in Belgium and France. The European Union is facing a growing economic instability as it prepares for Britain’s June referendum to determine whether the country will exit the coalition. As he has in the past, Obama encouraged the British people to vote in favor of maintaining the European Union.

“The answer to reform is not cutting ourselves off from each other,” he said.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.

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