The pistol-packing extremist set to be Austria’s leader

Published by The Mail on Sunday (22nd May 2016)

Norbert Hofer is a father- of-four who speaks softly, smiles often and walks with a stick following a paragliding accident.

He also packs a Glock pistol under his smart suits, saying that ‘in uncertain times, people try to protect themselves’, and likes to post pictures of himself on social media at a shooting range with his children.

Today this Austrian politician is expected to send shockwaves around Europe. For polls predict Hofer will sweep to his nation’s presidency, becoming the first Far Right candidate to be elected head of state on the Continent since the defeat of the Nazis.

His election – making him also commander-in-chief of the Austrian army – would mark an ominous advance in the growing populist revolt against traditional politics across the West.

Already he has crushed two mainstream parties that have ruled Austria since 1945, facing only an elderly professor who once headed the Greens in today’s second round of voting.

Hofer’s nationalist appeal to put ‘Austria first’ and opposition to ‘forced multiculturalism, globalisation and mass immigration’ won him 35 per cent of the vote in the first round – more than triple the share won by either of the familiar governing parties.

‘We had a rendezvous with history,’ he said afterwards – and certainly if he triumphs again today it will be impossible to ignore disconcerting echoes from the past.

After all, it was an Austrian named Adolf Hitler who led the Nazis – and whose jackbooted German troops were garlanded with flowers after annexing the nation in March 1938, the fuhrer greeted by cheering crowds upon his return to Vienna.

Of course Hofer and his Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) present themselves very differently, courting the Jewish vote and claiming to be left of the US Democrats.

Yet party founders included ex-Nazis who dreamed of recreating Greater Germany, it has campaigned to legalise Nazi symbols and had links with the British National Party.

Like other Far Right groups in Europe, it turns its fire on Muslims rather than Jews these days, exploiting the Continent-wide immigration crisis that hit Austria especially hard.

Critics say 45-year-old Hofer, a trained aircraft engineer, is just the friendly face of an extremist party. Despite his mild manner, he claims: ‘Islam has no place in Austria.’

Hofer denies supporting rebirth of a Greater Germany – but has worn a blue cornflower at party meetings, a nationalist symbol adopted by the Nazi party when banned in Austria during the 1930s.

He also complains about supposed injustice of the Austrian state of Tyrol being separated from South Tyrol in northern Italy, a legacy of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s collapse in 1918.

He is a close ally of long-serving FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who caused a furore posting an anti-Semitic cartoon on Facebook, has ranted about ‘Islamisation’ and dismissed women in Islamic dress as ‘female ninjas’.

The contrast could not be starker with his rival in today’s vote.

Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, is the son of refugees who fled the Soviet takeover of Estonia. He detests the Far Right, saying if elected he would refuse to swear in an FPO government, and takes a far more liberal line on asylum. This issue has provoked political turmoil in Austria.

First the then chancellor, Werner Faymann, backed Germany’s stance of welcoming newcomers – then he performed an astonishing U-turn after the arrival of 90,000 people in a nation of under nine million.

Amid rising concern over the Continent’s second highest per capita number of asylum applications, Faymann suddenly shut borders, introduced limits on numbers and led European efforts to confine all new arrivals in Greece.

Inevitably this flip-flop fuelled mistrust of mainstream politicians. It also boosted support for the FPO, which opposed Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) from the start, as did the resignation of Faymann earlier this month, which made it look like the party could deliver results.

Just as in Germany, the rapid rise in refugee numbers divided Austria and was accompanied by a sharp rise in neo-Nazi attacks. It also hardened hostility to the EU, which looked flat-footed and disunited in response.

Although the Austrian presidency is a largely symbolic post, Hofer warns he might dismiss governments that fail to take his advice on immigration.

His first-round triumph was greeted with rapture by the Far Right around Europe. ‘Patriotic movements are surging vigorously,’ said Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, who seeks similar success next year in her own nation’s presidential poll.

Even Ukip’s deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, popped up to claim the result underscored EU remoteness and how people were ‘looking for an avenue to vent their spleen’.

Austria shows how Far Right protest parties are resurgent from Scandinavia to Greece, riding waves of frustration with Brussels and conventional politics. They have joined government coalitions in Finland and Norway, and even emerged as a force in Germany.

The same anti-establishment trend is seen with the shock triumph of Donald Trump in the US Republican race – or with illiberal governments winning power in central Europe. Brexit is also boosted by this phenomenon.

Migration is a factor, along with the alarming Middle East meltdown. Yet the FPO won almost a third of the Austrian vote back in 1999, entering government as a junior partner.

These howls of electoral rage against elites are also fuelled by other factors: job insecurity, terrorism fears, political incompetence, corruption, the euro crisis, super-rich tax dodging and housing and skills shortages.

Three decades ago another Austrian president was shunned globally after it emerged Kurt Waldheim had links to Nazi atrocities during his wartime army role. Then the country was ostracised in Europe when the FPO joined the government at the turn of the century.

Now there is merely a collective shrug of shoulders that the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, creator of the last century’s most hideous ideology, looks set to select a Far Right nationalist leader.

Behind Hofer’s smile lies a dangerous extremism and divisive creed. If elected president of Austria, it shows with the most grotesque clarity how turbulent are these times in which we live.

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