What do you think when you hear the name Norbert? Me, I think of French international shipping company Norbert Dentressangle. Perhaps you think of Norbit, the much-maligned 2007 Eddie Murphy multi-character romcom romp. But for most Austrians, and some others interested in Austria, Norbert Hofer was the Norbert on their minds. Hofer was the presidential candidate for the far-right Freedom Party, and he lost on Monday by an extremely narrow margin to Alexander Van Der Bellen, leader of the Green Party.
But what would his election have meant for the alpine nation? Would it have made a difference? Just who the heck is this guy anyhow?! We asked Markus Lust, the editor in chief of VICE Austria, for some advice on this matter.
VICE: Could you tell us a bit about who Norbert Hofer is?
Markus Lust: Sure. He's the right-wing candidate, the far-right candidate, but also he's the least far right within his party. He's more the sympathetic candidate. The leader of the party, Heinz-Christian Strache, is known to be way more vocal about Islam, Muslims, everything else. Nobert Hofer was the more moderate candidate, in the context of the far right. Although he did co-write the Freedom Party handbook, the compendium of its ideology, so even if he seems to be very moderate, he was forming the ideology together with the other guys. For instance, in the handbook, there's a passage that describes the female uterus as the "place with the highest mortality rate" and stuff like that. He is also known for wearing the cornflower, which was an illegal symbol for Nazi sympathizers when the Nazi Party was still illegal in Austria (pre-annexation).
What were his main campaign promises?
To be a more hands-on president than any other president before. The president is actually just there to be a representative of Austria—he's not really the leader of our government. Usually he's not doing much other than traveling around and meeting other presidents. But the president actually could be way more active and way more powerful if he chose to. We have a constitution that was written in 1920, then updated in 1929, which was very proto-fascist. It put a lot of power in the hands of the president. But no president actually used that power. Norbert Hofer was the one who actually said he would probably do that. He wanted to be more vocal, more hands-on, and to have a new understanding of the office.
What would he have changed, if anything?
It's hard to tell, actually. He probably would have done everything that our left president did. He said if the government was not to his liking, he would call for new elections. He also tried to be more open toward Israel. Israel is still officially boycotting the Freedom Party, but Hofer, in the final days of the election, said that he had been to Israel, and he's been to the Israeli parliament, on an official visit. Journalists tried to find out about it and found that it wasn't an official visit at all. He tried to position himself as the one guy who's building bridges and who's trying to be more open toward Jews after the reputation the Freedom Party had in the past.
Sounds like a load of jiggery pokery. Hofer only lost by a narrow margin. Is this an indication of growing far-right sympathies in Austria?
It is, but we've already gotten used to it over the last couple of elections. This didn't happen overnight. The Austrian right has been strong since the late 90s. It has been really strong in the last one or two elections. They were getting pretty close in the Viennese elections last year, as well. We still have a socialist mayor in Vienna, but they got pretty close. There has been a constant change over the last ten years.
Do you think this loss will be a death knell for the Austrian right, or will it continue to bolster it?
I don't think it will get more extreme that it already has. More or less every third person voted for the Freedom Party before, and now half that number voted for them this time around. The thing about this election is that all candidates were kind of extreme. The Green candidate, the right-wing candidate—I don't think it's really telling you that much about how people think, because there was no middle ground between those two. They had to decide for an extreme candidate either way. In Vienna, Hofer has been really, really weak. So in Vienna, I think they've reached the glass ceiling with him. What they're trying to do is get into rural communities and mobilize the agricultural communities, but, yeah, I think they've pretty much reached their limits.
Do you think the inevitable comparisons to Nazi Germany are either accurate or fair?
I don't. We have to be careful about not being like the Weimar Republic, as in being ignorant up until the point that it's too late. When you try to talk to political analysts over the past week, they were saying, "Well, he can't do that much if he's following the law," but he can always break the law. To a certain degree we were pretty naïve. Ten years ago, twenty years ago, people probably would have told you there will never be a Freedom Party candidate for the presidency at all, let alone one that loses by that small a margin. As far as Nazi Germany goes... Hofer is not an anti-semite, and he's not trying to open up concentration camps or exterminate all Jews. It's not that extreme. It has more of a symbolic value, I guess.
The cornflower thing invites the comparison though right?
It's more complex. In Austria, we still have a law against displaying Nazi insignia. You're not allowed to "Heil Hitler," and you're not allowed to do the Nazi salute—that's all forbidden by law. So they like to play with that symbolism to a certain degree. My guess is if there was a Nazi Party in Austria, the Freedom Party would try to distance itself clearly from it.
Do you think this near-miss is indicative of attitudes across Europe?
I think the problem is there is no left-wing populism, at least in Austria. They are always trying to be intellectual about everything. The left try and portray how the world should run, and the right-wingers portray what is going wrong. They point the finger to something, and the left says, "Yeah, sure, right now there are problems with refugees, but we shouldn't send them away, and we should move on, and everything will be better in ten years," and people don't get that. They want someone who puts the finger on current and actual problems that are out there right now. And that's what the right wing is doing.
What would it have meant for Austria if the Freedom Party were in power?
Do you mean had won the presidency or were the leading party in parliament?
A bit of both.
If the party won the presidency, that wouldn't have made much of a difference for Austria. As far as foreign policy goes, it definitely would have had an impact on our reputation, internationally speaking. Hofer would probably have just put out some statements every other month saying what the government does is completely wrong, and he would do something about it if he could, but he's only the president, so he can't. He would probably use it as a PR thing. But besides that, there wouldn't have been much of an impact.
If the Freedom Party were in power, as far as the government goes, there probably would be some substantial changes and would probably move into more of a Hungary-style government. We're already closing the borders. Even our center-left chancellor is doing politics in a way that Eastern countries only do if they have right-wing leaders. We're pretty right wing already. I think the Social Democrats feel like they have to take that away from the Freedom Party, because they felt like it works with people, and people like that, so let's make it ours.
So even though it wouldn't have made a great deal of difference, you're still glad Hofer wasn't elected?
Yes. The other candidate isn't really your average joe—he's a professor of economics, and he talks like a professor as well. He's an old, wise, well-informed person who's perfect for representing Austria. He's a soft-spoken, well-mannered man, so for what the president should be doing, he's the best one to do it.
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