ROME — Austria narrowly averted what would have been one of the most dangerous electoral decisions since World War II by not choosing far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer. Instead, Green party candidate Alexander van der Bellen won the presidency by a razor-thin margin of 50.3 percent to Hofer’s 49.7 percent, and only after absentee postal votes were tallied on Monday.
Even though Hofer lost, his immense popularity speaks volumes about the growing nationalistic anti-immigration right-wing sentiments gripping Europe right now as it comes to terms with a mass migration crisis. More than 90,000 people—roughly 1 percent of Austria’s population—claimed political asylum in the country last year.
Hofer, 45, often was referred to as ”Austria’s Donald Trump and was well known for carrying a 9mm Glock pistol, which he brandished at political rallies, ostensibly for protection, justifying the act as a “natural consequence” of immigration. Among his key campaign phrases were slogans like: “Islam has no place in Austria.”
“I’m not a dangerous person,” he said to critics during the campaign. “But those people who don’t appreciate our country, who go to war for the Islamic State or rape women—I say to those people: ‘This is not your home! You can’t stay in Austria.’” (Sound familiar?)
Hofer also promised to do what he could as Austria’s president, a somewhat limited role, to tighten Austria’s borders to protect the country from the onslaught of immigrants. Among the promises were plans to help the country seal off the historical Brenner Pass with Italy, which is an Alpine roadway that has been traversed since Roman times, with a fence Trump would surely be proud of.
“We have no choice,” he said while campaigning to fiery crowds who clearly backed his extreme views. “Only 20 percent of people arriving in Austria are real refugees and they have already passed through safe countries.”
That sentiment has been echoed in Northern European countries for more than a year as first Greece, and now Italy, bear the brunt of the biggest migrant crisis Europe has ever faced. Last year, more than 1 million people made it safely to Europe, mostly through Greece and Italy, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees UNHCR. This year, more than 190,000 have arrived already.
Rhetoric like Hofer’s has been on the rise in Europe as anti-immigration demonstrators backed by right-wing politicians take to the streets. Last weekend, anti-immigration protests in Rome brought hundreds of extremist right-wing demonstrators to an area near Piazza Vittorio, where a large number of immigrants live, shouting, “Stop the invasion! This is my home, not yours!” and “I don’t want the European Union.”
A Hofer win would have been a clear show of support for right-wing politicians across the continent who have been steadily gaining ground. In Germany, the anti-immigration right-wing Alternative for Germany political party is polling at around 12 percent against Angela Merkel’s party, which has paved the way to mass migration by inviting refugees to Germany to build a better life.
Those fears also play into the contentious June 23 Brexit referendum next month in which British voters will whether or not to stay in the European Union.
Even though Hofer has been set aside for the moment, he is clearly not stepping out of the political scene in Austria. “Dear friends, thank you for your great support,” he wrote on his Facebook page after conceding the presidential race on Monday evening. “Of course I’m sad today. I would like to have looked after you as President of our wonderful country. I will remain loyal to you and make my contribution to a positive future in Austria. Please do not be discouraged—this election campaign is not lost but is an investment in the future.”
And just what that future is for Europe remains very unsettling indeed.