Gun Carrying, Anti-Migration Populist Candidate Wins Presidential Election in Austria

An opponent of increased Muslim immigration who is famed for carrying a gun everywhere he goes has triumphed in the first round of Austria’s presidential election.

Norbert Hofer is the nominee of the Freedom Party, a populist right-wing political party that opposes Muslim immigration and is skeptical of the European Union. Hofer has attracted attention on the campaign trail by carrying a Glock handgun with him and posting a photo of himself at a shooting range. Hofer says he represents a trend of Austrians buying guns to protect themselves from the crime and uncertainty created in the wake of an unprecedented wave of foreign migrants.

Hofer finished with 36.7 percent of Sunday’s presidential vote, far ahead of second-place finisher Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent tied to the Green Party who received 19.7 percent. Since no candidate received a majority in the vote, Hofer and Van der Bellen will have to face off in a May runoff.

The result is a big shakeup in Austrian politics, which have been dominated since World War 2 by the conservative Austrian People’s Party and the socialist Social Democratic Party of Austria. Both parties were embarrassed Sunday, with their candidates finishing outside the top 3 and failing to get even 25 percent support combined.

The vote is a reflection of the political turmoil in the country, which like neighboring Germany has been placed under pressure by a tremendous wave of migrants from Syria and other non-European countries. Initially, Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann welcomed over 90,000 migrants, but after a surge in public opposition, he did an about-face, closing the country’s borders and imposing a cap on asylum-seekers. The migrant crisis has helped to discredit the two major powers and drive a surge in support for alternatives. (RELATED: Poland’s Parliament Has Literally Zero Liberals Now)

The result is also a reflection of the growing political polarization of Europe, since the anti-migrant (and, according to some, “far-right”) Hofer will be facing off against the strongly pro-migrant and rather left-wing Van der Bellen.

In practice, the Austrian presidency has been a ceremonial role, similar to that played by a constitutional monarch. While the president holds vast powers such as the ability to dismiss the Austrian parliament and dissolve the government, these powers are only used at the request of the country’s chancellor.

If elected, though, Hofer has suggested he may shake up this traditional approach, saying that if the government fails to tighten up restrictions on migrants he may dissolve the current government. Austria’s next parliamentary election is scheduled for 2018, and the Freedom Party leads current polls.

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