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Geopolitics

Even If Far Right Lost, Fear And Hatred Now Rule In Austria

The far-right candidate may have lost the Austrian presidential election in the end, but the campaign has already changed the country for the worse.

Supporters of Freedom Party (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer.
Supporters of Freedom Party (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer.
Cathrin Kalhweit

- Analysis -

VIENNA — Austria has just endured a fierce, unpleasant election campaign. During the final weeks, everybody expected the vote to end with a clear victory for Freedom Party (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer, who would have been Europe's first far-right head of state since the end of World War II.

But the election result ultimately turned out differently. Though there was still no clear winner by Sunday night, Alexander Van der Bellen finally was able to claim victory the next day.

Still, regardless of the election outcome, the country has changed dramatically over the last several months. Sensationalist media, the FPÖ and even some in the Christian democratic and conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) have jumped on the bandwagon with hyperbolic platitudes splashed all over social networks: There is talk of an "increasing crime rate," a belief that "women can't walk the streets alone anymore," and even that "foreigners are all rapists and murderers."

Hatred and contempt are suddenly acceptable, because they're directed at others — outsiders. That's what Hofer suggested in his final speech, when he said foreigners who care about Austria may stay, "but those who follow ISIS, or rape women, must go."

Gross generalization and defamation have become widespread, with hateful comments parroted back by a public that passively absorbs them. The election campaign drifted far away from its stated goal of finding the right person to represent the country, attract investors, mediate and connect.

At the end of the day, Hofer could claim victory, even if he didn't become president. He demonstrated a clear path for how a right-wing leader can rise to power: to sweep the country "clean" with an iron besom, to set limits to the current establishment, to restore the old order. Those in Austria who still see shades of gray, and who favor a moderate approach, are lost right now.

With the ballots counted and Van der Bellen elected, the real fight for Austria has just begun.

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Martin Schutt/dpa via ZUMA
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