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Glock-Toting, Anti-Immigrant Candidate Wins Big in Austrian Presidential Elections

Norbert Hofer, leader of the right-wing Freedom party, won 37 percent of the vote out of five candidates in elections that will go to a runoff round.

by Tess Owen
Apr 24 2016, 8:25pm

(Filip Singer/EPA)

Austria's far right made big wins in the latest round of voting in the country's presidential election.

Norbert Hofer, candidate of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe), took home almost 37 percent of the vote out of five candidates in Sunday's polls.

The election will now go to a runoff that will take place on May 22, when Hofer will face either Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, who gained 19.7 percent of the vote this round, or independent candidate Irmgard Griss, who won 18.8 percent.

For an all-out win a candidate must obtain more than 50 percent of votes to become the country's head of state, which is a largely ceremonial role.

But the results do reflect Austrians' frustration with their leaders' response to Europe's refugee crisis, and mean that, for the first time since 1945, Austria will not have a president from either the center-left Social Democrats or the center-right People's Party.

Hofer sailed past the candidates from those two parties — the Social Democrats and the People's Party – who gained only 11.2 percent of the vote each.

Coming in last was Richard Lugner — the 83-year old construction tycoon and socialite who is known for inviting celebrities to accompany him to the Vienna State Opera.

Sunday's result were the biggest victory that Hofer's Freedom Party has seen since the party's inception after World War II.

Marine Le Pen, who heads France's right wing National Front party, sent her congratulations to Hofer via Twitter, saying: "My most sincere congratulations to our friends at the #FPÖ for this beautiful result. Congratulations to the Austrian people."

Hofer, who says he almost always packs a Glock in order to protect himself from refugees, is considered by German media to be the friendlier face of the Freedom Party over its more aggressive leader, Heinz-Christian Strache.

Still, Hofer says Austria should leave the EU, wants to deport all foreigners, and wants to ban women from wearing head scarves.

As in other parts of Europe, analysts attribute the crumbling of traditional parties' support bases to rising xenophobic sentiment, which has spiked in response to the massive influx of refugees into Europe seeking asylum from war torn nations like Syria and Iraq.

Last September, Austria's coalition leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her determination to take the moral high road when it came to allowing refugees to seek asylum in Europe.

Austrian Social Democrat Chancellor Werner Faymann even joined Merkel in her fierce criticism of Hungarian officials, who were less willing to greet the influx of refugees with open arms and erected a border fence to keep them out.

But months later, Austrian officials seemingly did a complete turnaround.

Before the crucial EU summit in February, which was an opportunity for European leaders to find a common solution to the refugee crisis, Austria withdrew and announced its plans to impose a cap on the number of refugees it would admit into the country. Austria also put up a 2.5 mile fence at its Slovenian border and deployed military personnel to its other borders.

Related: France's Far-Right Family Implodes as National Front Founder Jean-Marie Le Pen Disowns His Daughter

But such moves weren't enough to keep Austrians' faith in the governing coalition of political parties.

"People are deeply unhappy with the government," Eric Frey, a political scientist, told Deutsche Welle. "They are upset by the way the government has handled the refugee crisis, which has only added insult to injury for many Austrians who are already suffering from the country's rising unemployment, growing budget deficit, and a systemically dysfunctional education system."

As in other parts of Europe, far-right politicians have capitalized on feelings of disenfranchisement among some Austrians, and have made the influx of refugees the scapegoat for their woes. As of June 2015, there were 60,747 refugees living in Austria, and 30,000 asylum seekers.

And attacks on Austria's newest population have been increasing.

Earlier this month, 30 people claiming to be members of the far-right youth "Identitarian movement" stormed a theatre in Vienna that was holding a production featuring a cast made upentirely of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Protesters mostly men, ran onto the stage, threw fake blood into the audience, and fliers saying "multiculturalism kills." The group also unfurled a large banner saying "Hypocrites: Our resistance to your decadence."

In 2015, asylum facilities came under attack 25 times. Some of the incidents involved Nazi propaganda being posted around facilities and refugees being shot at with an air rifle. Other attacks involved arson or setting off fireworks. According to local Austrian outlets, attacks on refugee camps occurred in all provinces but one.

Xenophobia has also been creeping into some political rhetoric. Robert Lugar, formerly a member of FPOe and current chair of the far-right populist Team Stronach, likened asylum seekers to "neanderthals." Lugar also proposed that all male asylum seekers over the age of 14 be mandated to give DNA tests in case they turn out to be sex offenders in the future.

Related: Hate Speech Trial of Far-Right Pegida Party Founder Begins in Germany

Not all Austrians share these views, and there are many who were disappointed by the government's decision to tighten its borders. A demonstration in Vienna last March, which was organized under the slogan "Welcome to Refugees, No to Fortress Europe," drew about 6,000 people.

The divisiveness of the immigration issue was reflected in Austria's coalition. Thomas Hofer, an independent political consultant and public affairs specialist told Deutsche Welle that the refugee crisis "exposed the bickering among the parties," and in doing so, "deepened and accelerated the fissure."

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Hofer is the Freedom Party's presidential candidate, not the party's leader.

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