In the latest debate, aired on Austria’s ATV network, populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) presidential candidate Norbert Hofer said that Merkel’s migrant policies were “causing serious damage to Europe” and claimed that the result of her open door policy last year allowed for well over a million migrants “including terrorists to trek through Austria”, reports Zeit Online.
The statements echo those made weeks ago by the leader of the FPÖ Heinz-Christian Strache who said that Ms. Merkel was the “most dangerous woman in Europe”, because of her migrant policies.
The debate returned to the U.S. presidential election, President-Elect Donald J. Trump being a subject of discussion in the previous debate, with Hofer criticising his rival, ex-Green party leader Alexander Van der Bellen, for his attitude toward the incoming U.S. president. “It is not clever to describe a president as a rabble rouser”, said Hofer referring to comments made weeks prior by Van der Bellen in which he called Trump and Hofer “demagogues“.
Mr. Van der Bellen fired back at Hofer claiming that the election of the populist candidate could make Austria one step closer to an exit from the European Union (EU). While Hofer has floated the idea of leaving, he has said that he would only back a referendum on membership if the EU becomes even more centralised, or if Turkish membership into the political bloc is granted.
“The FPÖ has been toying with Austria’s exit for 20 years. Many politicians in Europe are worried that the mere speculation could trigger… an avalanche of right-wing populism,” said Mr. Van der Bellen. Already in the wake of the victory of President-Elect Trump many have speculated a growth in populist parties across Europe, calling it the “Trump Effect.”
Hofer and Van der Bellen also look in opposite directions when it comes to foreign ties. Van der Bellen looks west wanting to foster stronger ties with the German government, while Hofer looks east, and has expressed a desire to reengage with Russia and look for ways to end the economic sanctions which also impact the Austrian economy.
After almost a year of campaigning, the longest ever Austrian presidential race is set to come to a conclusion this Sunday, December 4th. While Van der Bellen has wooed over many in the establishment, including several members of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), Hofer has made huge inroads with working class Austrians fed up with what they consider an out of touch elite.