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Why is this Hofer guy always smiling like a car salesman?

Posted by hkarner - 2. Dezember 2016

Date: 02-12-2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Subject: Vying for Their Own Election Upset, Austrian Populists Forge Ties to Trump Allies

For the anti-immigrant Freedom Party, Donald Trump’s victory represents a new level of acceptance for the populist political movement in the West

hofer-smilingSupporters of the far-right Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer hold masks with their presidential candidate’s face at a party event in Vienna in September.

Senior politicians from Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party celebrated the upset victory of Donald Trump at an election-night party in Trump Tower in New York. This Sunday, when their nation goes to the polls, they will be hoping for an improbable presidency of their own.

Mr. Trump’s win has energized populist politicians across Europe who echo his criticism of immigration, free trade and international institutions and calls for improved ties with Russia.

But nowhere, perhaps, is the jubilation as great as in Austria, where the Freedom Party now sees years of quiet efforts to establish ties with conservative Republicans in the U.S. paying off just as its own candidate stands on the verge of the Austrian presidency.The party’s Norbert Hofer is running neck-and-neck with center-left candidate Alexander Van der Bellen in the polls ahead of Austria’s runoff presidential election on Sunday. Mr. Hofer’s victory would give the Freedom Party—long ostracized for its xenophobic rhetoric and past links to former Nazis—the Austrian presidency for the first time.

Unlike in the U.S., the position is largely ceremonial, but a win would still anoint the first right-wing populist head of state in modern Western Europe, accelerating the sweep of antiestablishment politics across the continent and giving Mr. Trump a new ally abroad.

The links between Mr. Trump’s domestic allies and the populist politicians from the Alpine country of 8 million were on display in November as a Freedom Party delegation toured the East Coast.

austria-partiesAbout a week before the Nov. 8 election, Freedom Party politicians met with Gen. Mike Flynn—now Mr. Trump’s pick to be his national security adviser—in Trump Tower in New York, according to several Austrians who attended.

Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who met with Mr. Hofer in Vienna earlier this year, said he helped arrange the meeting. The Trump transition team didn’t respond to a request for comment on ties with Freedom Party politicians.

The Austrian delegation also traveled to Washington and Charlotte, N.C., to meet with other supporters of Mr. Trump, some of whom the Austrians already knew from prior visits to the National Prayer Breakfast and the Conservative Political Action Conference. They spent election night at a watch party in Trump Tower, mingling with building residents, populist politicians from elsewhere in Europe, and other Trump backers.

“Things are changing,” Harald Vilimsky, the party’s general secretary, wrote on Facebook on Nov. 9, posting a photo of himself and four colleagues inside Trump Tower. “And we get to be a part of it. What an honor.”

fpoe-approvalRepublican Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina, who hosted the Austrian politicians in Charlotte, described them as his friends stemming from years of meetings in the U.S. and Europe. A victory by Mr. Hofer in Sunday’s election in Austria, he said, would be “very positive” for the U.S.—mirroring the growing success of the National Front in France and other populist movements.

“They understand free markets; they understand security,” the congressman said of the Freedom Party. “The government of Mr. Trump will align with what’s taking place in France and what’s taking place perhaps in Austria and maybe other countries.”

A Hofer victory would give a big boost to the Freedom Party’s efforts to rise to power in government. Mr. Hofer has run a populist campaign opposing immigration and free trade, exhorting voters to “rise up for Austria.”

For the Freedom Party, Mr. Trump’s victory represents a new level of acceptance for the political movement in the West. Mr. Vilimsky said the party has for years been treated poorly by U.S. officials, being snubbed for invitations at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, for instance. That, he said, will now change.

“It is clear that there are now few-to-no barriers, and that we are greeted with openness,” Mr. Vilimsky, who led the Freedom Party delegation to the U.S., said.

The U.S. Embassy in Vienna said it “regularly engages with all Austrian parliamentary parties.”

Freedom Party officials said that their main hope for Mr. Trump’s presidency was rapprochement with Russia and that Mr. Hofer as president would seek to bring Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin together for a summit in Vienna. Politicians from the Freedom Party have protested the West’s sanctions against Russia and have visited officials in Moscow in recent years.

“Because of the changed situation in the United States, our candidate in one fell swoop has become a respected guest there,” said Andreas Karlsböck, a Freedom Party lawmaker who knows Mr. Pittenger. “We now have contacts in two directions: in one direction to Russia, and in the other direction to the United States.”

The Freedom Party also sees common cause with Mr. Trump in their opposition to free trade. Party officials say they are confident that Mr. Trump won’t pursue a trade and investment agreement between the U.S. and the European Union that has been supported by President Barack Obama and mainstream European politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Beyond that, some Trump allies in the U.S. and the Freedom Party see a joint interest in opposing immigration from the Middle East and Ms. Merkel’s acceptance of refugees. Mr. King, a vocal critic of immigration in the U.S., said he was confident that Mr. Hofer and Mr. Trump would form a bond that could weaken the influence of the German leader.

“I’m hopeful that Norbert Hofer can sit down and meet with Donald Trump, and that they can build the kind of friendship or relationship that Hofer and I enjoy,” Mr. King said. The fact that Mr. Hofer is a staunch critic of Ms. Merkel—widely seen as Europe’s most influential politician—would “disempower Merkel rather than be a negative for Hofer,” Mr. King said.

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