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Wary migrants in Austria

Emir Numanovic / ctMay 19, 2016

Foreigners in Austria are increasingly on edge ahead of the presidential election this weekend, fearing that Austrians might elect the anti-migrant, anti-Muslim candidate, Norbert Hofer, on May 22.

Austria Norbert Hofer
Image: Getty Images/AFP/H. Schneider

"If I were to go to the polls, I'd vote for Van der Bellen. Hofer is selling himself as a nice, friendly person at the moment, but he's dangerous. And I'm sure it's going to come down to every vote," said Osman, a Bosnian who has held the right to vote in Austria for five years.

Petar, a Serbian man sees the close race similarly, though he takes a different political stance. "The FPÖ (ed: Austrian Freedom Party) has been wooing us Serbs, and though I don't exactly trust them, I do find it good that they're all for fewer foreigners. We already have too many."

Definite differences

Rarely has an election in Austria pitted two such contrarian political opponents against each other as this one, which has voters choosing between Alexander van der Bellen or Norbert Hofer for president; left-liberal Green, or rightwing. That doesn't make the choice any easier for Osman and Peter who, like the majority of the 133,000 of their fellow countrymen with the right to vote in Austria, have rarely voted – either because they weren't interested in the election, or because neither had a clear political opinion.

Austria TV debate: Norbert Hofer and Alexander van der Bellen
The two candidates are pretty much diametrically opposedImage: Getty Images/AFP/H. Punz

It's possible that the FPÖ has mobilized more Serbians to vote, along with more Croats and Bosnians, as the political leanings of this group see the Greens as too liberal, especially when the rights of migrants and refugees - especially Muslims - are concerned.

The tactic being employed by the FPÖ, to take up this topic within the Serbian community, could very well have an impact on voter behavior, said Nedad Memic, publicist and long-time editor-in-chief of the newspaper "Kosmo," one of the largest-circulation newspapers geared to migrants from the former Yugoslavia.

FPÖ courting Balkan immigrant voters

"The FPÖ is really trying to speak to the Serbian community, first by making very problematic statements about Bosnia and Herzogovina. Just look at the invitation extended to Milorad Dodik to come to Vienna. Dodik has already twice recommended the FPÖ to Serbs and such a recommendation speaks especially to anyone who would say he thinks the Serbian 'national question' is important. But many Serbs have grown up in Vienna, in a city that has had multiple ethnicities for decades. The messages the FPÖ are sending are not the only criteria for a decision taken at the ballot box," said Memic.

With nearly 40% of these voters from the former Yugoslavia living in Vienna, the struggle to win their vote is primarily taking place in the capital city. And in recent years, that has meant choosing between the center-left Social Democrats, SPÖ, and the far-right FPÖ. Generally speaking, according to Memic, votes from the former Yugoslavia are aligned with the Social Democrats. Yet the question remains if they will follow the recommendations of the Social Democrats that were handed down calling for them to vote for Van der Bellen in the second round of elections.

That's exactly what Ahmed Husagic, another member of the Bosnian community living in Vienna, would recommend. He was a candidate for the Vienna SPÖ at the state-level during the last election and is certain that voters from the former Yugoslavia will not go for the FPÖ's populist bent.

Austria Norbert Hofer
Norbert Hofer has been gaining a lot of traction with anti-immigrant votersImage: picture alliance/H. Punz/APA

"They know all too well that that will bring nothing and they won't have a better life because of it. And they also recognize that this kind of rhetoric was what brought the war to Yugoslavia. The FPÖ wants to implement a health insurance system that is solely for migrants; they even want to make a distinction between those Austrians who are native born, and those who are nationalized citizens. They want to cut back on social services for migrants and deport those who have been looking for jobs for a longer period of time," said Husagic.

The Austrian president doesn't have much authority, essentially serving as a representative of the country. Yet if there were to be a drastic change to the post that would simply be a continuation of the changes at the parliamentary level, with the SPÖ less influential and the FPÖ gaining influence.

Hofer's assertive style

Many communications experts have repeatedly had a look at the destructive methods of communication that Norbert Hofer uses. These include interrupting a constructive discussion that was being held at eye-level, denigrating his opponents and even attacking his opposition at the personal level. If the other person reacts to these attacks, his credibility shrinks as the topic at hand is left on the table; he looks insecure and disoriented whereas Hofer comes across as commanding.

A method which is regarded well by some of those Serbians who visit the Viennese cafe Lepa Brena. "I saw the last debate between Hofer and Van der Bellen," said Marko, one of the guests. "Hofer brought him to his knees. And I'll vote for him because he wants to prevent Muslims from coming to Austria, which is good."

Though analysts aren't making much of such reactions, they also aren't predicting a defeat in the end results. "It will either come down to voting along traditional party-lines or sympathies felt for one of the other parties that will be decisive. And that depends on how one views the world.