Robert Austin teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
As Austrians predictably packed Christmas markets, they less predictably bucked a trend on Sunday by rejecting a far-right populist presidential candidate and electing a left-wing former Green Party leader to be the country's next president. Many European Union leaders, especially in Western Europe where populists seem to dictate the agenda, could claim a modest victory. The election was a rerun of a contested result in May where the left won by a mere 30,000 votes. This time around, the left's victory was far more decisive with a turnout of more than 70 per cent.
Austrians, who until now hardly gave much thought to presidential elections, were likely fed up with an often bitter campaign that lasted almost a year. Things got so bad that the normally staid debates resembled the Clinton vs. Trump dust-ups. Austrians did not have great choices either for the largely ceremonial role of president. The contest was between Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old second in command of the far-right Freedom Party or Alexander Van der Bellen, the 72-year-old former Green Party leader who ran as an independent but was backed by the Greens.
Mr. Hofer came across as down-to-earth and friendly, a wolf in sheep's clothing many said, and Mr. Van der Bellen was the more detached and austere former professor of economics. In essence, a choice between two extremes as Austria's traditional governing parties collapsed in the first round of voting. Both the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right People's Party urged their supporters to vote for Mr. Van der Bellen to prevent Austria from electing the first far-right president since the Second World War.
The messages of the two leaders were starkly different. Mr. Hofer sounded the same as other like-minded party leaders in Europe – Marine Le Pen in France or Viktor Orban in Hungary – anti-immigration with some very ominous warnings. The usual stuff – some very real grievances focused on living standards along with some manufactured ones. Fear remained their principal currency.
Mr. Hofer promised a return to the real Austria – one where Austrian values took precedence and an almost imagined past of Austrian homogeneity returned. Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who is more of a street fighter than Mr. Hofer, called German Chancellor Angela Merkel "the most dangerous woman in Europe." He also warned that continued immigration could provoke a civil war.
Mr. Strache's civil war allusion prompted an 89-year-old Austrian Holocaust survivor to post a video that went viral. She decried Mr. Strache's comments and urged particularly young voters to get out and vote. As to civil war, growing up in the Austria of the 1930s unlike Mr. Strache, she had already been through that and said there were ominous signs of history repeating itself.
Clearly, more than a few Austrians decided she may have been right. Besides, with borders under control now (read closed) and no party offering an open door, migration was no longer the mobilizing force it used to be.
Mr. Van der Bellen offered pragmatism, bridge-building between the major parties and a better international image for Austria. After all, the last time the Freedom Party was in a coalition government in 2000, the European Union responded with sanctions of a sort.
Unlike Mr. Hofer, Mr. Van der Bellen never questioned Austria's loyalty to the EU. Mr. Van der Bellen did well in Austria's west, its main cities and among the youth and more educated. The Freedom Party found support among males over all along with rural and less affluent regions.
While Mr. Van der Bellen's victory gives some hope that at least in one country the populist insurgency has been slowed, the Freedom Party is far from finished. It has changed since the days of the neo-Nazism of the late Joerg Haider. It is more nuanced now. Its leaders say they are centre-right, not far right.
One thing is sure, they are not on the periphery. They do well in elections, with more than 20 per cent nationally. They are long part of the Austrian political landscape and the next nationwide elections, which decide real power, may offer another chance for them to remake Austria in 2018.