Forget Marine Le Pen - Norbert Hofer is the far-right leader we should be worried about

Norbert Hofer - an aeronautical engineer set to streamline Austrian politics

Norbert Hofer

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In a year that has been defined by populist political shocks, it's perhaps surprising that a far-right politician who could soon take over one of Europe's most powerful countries has received so little attention.

We're not talking about Marine Le Pen. We're talking about someone even further to the right, and even closer to power.

Norbert Hofer is an Austrian aeronautical engineer-turned-politician who hates Muslims and is deeply sceptical about the EU. He is about to contest the country's presidential election, and he has a genuine chance of winning.

In fact the vote is a re-run of a previous election held in May, in which Hofer, representing the Freedom Party, lost out to Green candidate Alexander Van Der Bellen having enjoyed a substantial lead until the closing stages of the campaign. Now the two men are about to lock horns again, with recent events - Trump, Brexit and the ongoing migrant crisis - playing into Hofer's hands.

Austria can legitimately be described as the cradle of Nazism, given the crimes committed by its most infamous son. The country remains deeply scarred by the legacy of Adolf Hitler, even though his childhood home will soon, finally, be bulldozed.

But critics suggest that Hofer is about to bring Nazism back to mainstream Austrian politics, and bring racial hatred back to a country still apologising for Hitler's crimes.

A campaign poster for Norbert Hofer

Hofer's party sounds innocent enough from its name, but the Freedom Party was founded by Nazis after World War Two and has stayed largely loyal to their ideals. In 2012 the party's leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, posted a caricature on Facebook depicting a banker with a hooked nose, wearing Star of David cufflinks. 

In 2000, the Freedom Party managed to enter a government coalition, turning Austria into an international pariah. Now it is back, its platform having shifted towards Islamophobia, reflecting the political zeitgeist.

Hofer, like Le Pen, has attempted to boost his personal prospects by distancing himself from the more rabid elements of his party. He presents in a relatively soft manner, speaking quietly and thoughtfully, labeled 'doe-eyed' in the German press, and using a walking stick to support himself after an unfortunate hang-gliding incident.

But this former border guard is a man of his convictions, enough to be labeled a "wolf in sheep's clothing" by his detractors. He carried a 9mm glock pistol with him during campaigning, claiming it was a "natural consequence” of immigration. He also wore a cornflower in his lapel, a former Nazi emblem, during his swearing-in ceremony as Freedom Party candidate.

Hofer has attempted to water down the party's association with anti-semitism, even visiting Israel, but he remains a staunch nationalist In 2011 he rewrote the Freedom Party manifesto, emphasising Volksgemeinschaft' [a word which means 'people's community' and was a key slogan for the Nazis] and he has previously called for the South Tryol in northern Italy to be annexed by Austria. He has also stoked islamophobia by proposing a ban on the burqa and vowing to take the country out of the EU if Turkey is allowed to join.












Many will point out that the Austrian presidency is - for the most part - largely ceremonial - not unlike the role of the constitutional monarch here in Britain. The real power lies with the Chancellor, a post currently held by Social Democrat Christian Kern. One journalist interviewed by talkRADIO this week suggested it "wouldn't be so bad" if Hofer won.

But this doesn't mean the president is negligible, for the powers of the position include appointing and dismissing ministers and calling parliamentary elections. Hofer has made it clear he will use these powers to "sack" the government if they didn't take a hard stance on immigration.

Furthermore, Hofer's election could encourage the growth of populist, anti-establishment movements in Europe. The fact that Hofer would be the first president representing far-right views to be democratically elected in the history of the European Union could prove to be critical for their growth. 

Marine Le Pen may dream of winning power in France in next year's Presidential elections, but Norbert Hofer is on the brink of actually seizing it. The European left has time to prepare itself for Le Pen and man the defences, learning the lessons of Trump and Brexit. But perhaps Norbert Hofer, the wolf in sheep's clothing, will sneak into power before the left recovers from its catastrophic recent shocks.