This is part II of  our Austrian Presidential Series. After Vanessa Marent discussed the role of women voters here, in this post, Robert Huber, who recently published an article on the influence of populist radical right parties on democratic quality, sheds light on two important factors that might affect the reruns’ outcome. Do you agree? Feel free to comment and share.


Same Candidates, Same Election?


Austria holds the same presidential run-off for the second time this year. But is it still the same election as earlier this year? It seems that the world changed considerably.


In this blogpost, I discuss two important factors that might affect the reruns’ outcome. I first argue that terrorism in Europe further increased the already important issue of immigration and security which perfectly plays into Hofer’s hand. Second, other populist actors were quite successful in 2016. For example, the US president-elect Donald Trump is regularly labelled as being populist (see Olivier and Rahn 2016; also see Mudde 2016). Similarly, populist sentiments seem to be a core explanation for the Brexit vote (see e.g. Hobolt 2016). Positive spill over effects for Hofer’s candidacy as well as negative effects are quite plausible. Austrian voters could either avert from Hofer because of similarities to populists elsewhere or could perceive this as a `now more than ever’ plea.


Shifts in Issue Salience: Terrorism

While Austria itself was not hit by terror attacks, terrorism in nearby or neighbouring countries is likely to have increased the fear of terrorism. Over this year’s summer, the public discourse in Europe was greatly shaped by the issue of terrorism. Belgium, France and (and to a lesser extent) Germany had all been hit by a series of terrorist attacks with official or unofficial relation to the Islamic State. Prior to the first Austrian Presidential run-off this year (on May 22nd), the refugee crisis and immigration were already quite salient and were said to have influenced the electoral outcome. Yet, only one major terrorist attack in Europe happened before the election date in 2016 in Brussels on March 22nd. The following attacks favour Hofer’s bid for office because right wing populist actors manage to credibly represent a strong law and order position (see e.g. Akkermann and DeLange 2012). Recently, terrorism is regularly associated with the refugee crises and negative effects of immigration – a key issue of Hofer’s campaign. Terrorism allows populist actors to frame security as an elite failure and thus emphasizes the antagonistic relationship between the people and the elite.


Additional to the change in issue salience, terrorism generally favours right wing parties because it leads to polarisation (see e.g. Berrebi and Klor 2008). Calls for strong leadership (a concept often embraced by populist parties) and authoritarianism tend to occur because of increased anxiety after terror attacks (see e.g. Feldman and Stenner 1997; Marcus et al. 2000; Sales 1973). Eventually, all these factors help Hofer to mobilise voters.


Populist’s successes elsewhere: Brexit & Trump

Populist actors were quite successful in 2016. Their political relatives in other countries regularly congratulate these actors and potentially hope for spill-over effects. If these actors are enjoy electoral support elsewhere, it might lower the inhibition to vote for these actors as they appear more socially accepted. In light of this argument, I briefly assess two major ballots favourable for populist actors in the Western world: Brexit and the US presidential election.



After the first run-off, the British electorate voted for leaving the European Union. Driven by anti-elite and anti-immigration sentiments, and populist actors, 51.9 % chose Brexit over remaining in the European Union (see e.g. Hobolt 2016). Theresa May succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister and assiduously followed the route towards Brexit and necessary exit-negotiations. Very recently, however, the British High Court of Justice ruled that the Parliament has to be involved and the Exit-procedure. This ruling stirred up strong anti-elite sentiments in the UK since the House of Commons is expected to either oppose or delay Brexit negotiations and thus prevent the realization of the will of the people. For example, the Daily Mail, an outlet that strongly advocated in favour of the Brexit during the actual campaign, described the ruling judges as “Enemies of the people” who are “out of touch” and “defied 17.4m Brexit voters” (Title page of the Daily Mail November 4, 2016).


Compared to terrorism, Brexit seems to negatively affect Hofer’s bid for presidency. While public support for populist actors elsewhere could mobilise voters for Hofer, the opposite trend seems plausible in this case. The Brexit led to drastic changes in Hofer’s position on Austria’s membership in the European Union which might be perceived as untrustworthy. The FPÖ’s party leader, HC Strache, immediately called for a binding referendum in Austria – often referred to as “Öxit”. While Hofer also led a group of MPs who proposed a motion for this referendum before the Brexit referendum, he changed his position as part of his campaigning strategy since the Austrian public does not favour an Austrian exit from the European Union. Consequentially, Van der Bellen’s campaign heavily mobilises along this issue.


US Presidential Election

Prior to the US presidential election on Nov. 8th, Hillary Clinton (Democrats) was the runaway favourite to win the election and to become the first woman in the Oval Office. Most forecasts predicted that she would win the presidential race by a large margin. Yet, against the odds, Donald Trump (Republicans) managed to win the presidency. Thus, a radical right anti-elitist candidate (frequently labelled populist; see Oliver and Rahn 2016; also see Mudde 2016) managed to gain one of the most important offices in the Western world. Especially radical right wing populist politicians such as Marine LePen (National Front – France), HC Strache (Austrian Freedom Party) or the Frauke Petry (Alternative for Germany) celebrated his success as the deserved punishment for the out of touch establishment (see e.g. die Presse 2016a).


Arguments in favour and against Hofer both seem plausible. On the one hand, the reaction of Austrian politicians outside of the FPÖ were quite critical with regard to Trump’s election. Several media outlets predicted negative effects for Hofer because Trump’s messages were quite provocative in European’s ears. Thus, left wing parties could potentially mobilise by comparing Hofer to Trump (see e.g. die Presse 2016b; Spiegel Online 2016). On the other hand, Trump’s demonization by established members of the Austrian political system helped the FPÖ to attack the political elite and claimed its disrespect to democracy and democratic decisions of citizens in other Western countries. Furthermore, Austrians seem less worried than expected. According to a recent poll by ATV and HEUTE, 72 % of Austrian voters agree that the establishment forgot about large shares of citizens (ATV 2016). More than a third of the Austrian population welcomes Trump’s election. This generally casts doubt about the frequently cited argument on the negative effects of Trump’s success on Hofer’s candidacy (see e.g. die Presse 2016b; Spiegel Online 2016) and rather supports the possibility of positive spill-over effects.



There is little reason to believe that this election is a mere rerun of the first election in May 2016. Whether the new circumstances help Van der Bellen or Hofer remains to be seen at the ballot. While Brexit speaks in favour of Van der Bellen, recent terror attacks and Trump’s election might help Hofer. For now, polls remain considerably close and see no systematic difference between the candidates (see e.g. ATV 2016; 2016) – a theme that has been common to all referendums and elections mentioned in this post and which makes predicting the outcome nearly impossible.


Author: Robert Huber, ETH Zurich in December 2016

Akkerman, Tjitske, and Sarah L. de Lange. 2012. “Radical Right Parties in Office: Incumbency Records and the Electoral Cost of Governing.” Government and Opposition 47(4): 574–96.


ATV. 2016. „ATV UND „HEUTE“: Bisher größte Umfrage zur Präsidentenwahl“ OTS. (November 21, 2016)


Berrebi, Claude, and Esteban F. Klor. 2008. “Are Voters Sensitive to Terrorism? Direct Evidence from the Israeli Electorate.” American Political Science Review 102(3): 279–301.


Die Presse. 2016a. „Strache gratuliert Trump, Kurz will kühlen Kopf `bewahren‘.“ Die Presse. (November 21, 2016).


Die Presse. 2016b. „Trump-Effekt? Meinungsforscher erwartet härteren Wahlkampf Hofers“ Die Presse. (November 25, 2016).


Feldman, Stanley, and Karen Stenner. 1997. “Perceived Threat and Authoritarianism.” Political Psychology 18(4): 741–70.


Hobolt, Sara B. 2016. “The Brexit Vote: A Divided Nation, a Divided Continent.” Journal of European Public Policy 23(9): 1259–77.


Marcus, George E., W. Russell Neuman, and Michael MacKuen. 2000. Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Mudde, Cas. 2016. “The Power of Populism? Not Really!” The Huffington Post. (July 28, 2016). 2016 “Wahlumfragen für Österreich (BD)“ (November 21, 2016).


Oliver, J. Eric, and Wendy M. Rahn. 2016. “Rise of the Trumpenvolk: Populism in the 2016 Election.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 667(1): 189–206.


Sales, Stephen M. 1973. “Threat as a Factor in Authoritarianism: An Analysis of Archival Data.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28(1): 44–57.


Spiegel Online. 2016. “FPÖ-Mann Hofer droht Österreichs Eliten“. Spiegel Online. (November 25, 2016).

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