Voters in Austria turned their backs on the far right in Sunday's presidential elections, when the Social Democratic incumbent Heinz Fischer cruised to victory and secured a second six-year term in office. With around 79% of the vote, Fischer trounced far-right candidate Barbara Rosenkranz, who secured 15.6% of the vote, according to preliminary figures. The result was a bitter blow for Rosenkranz's Freedom Party (FPO), which only a few months ago was enjoying strong media support and soaring popularity. But it was also a sign that Austria is still skittish about its Nazi past.
During the campaign, Rosenkranz, 51, a mother of 10, ran on an anti-immigration platform, trumpeting national security and traditional family values (she ruled out adoption for gay couples), and boasting that she had been a "housewife and mother for 15 years." But it was her divisive views on the nation's history that led her political opponents to dub her the "Reich Mother" and, some say, caused her party to hemorrhage votes come election day.
Rosenkranz whose husband was a member of the now banned Neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP) and is still publisher of the far-right magazine Fakten courted controversy over the past few years by calling for a reappraisal of the country's strict anti-Nazi laws which forbid denial of the Holocaust and prohibit the distribution of Nazi propaganda. During her campaign, she said the laws were "unnecessary restrictions" on freedom of expression. When asked by a reporter about the existence of the Nazi gas chambers, she ambiguously said: "My view of history is that of a person who was taught at Austrian schools between 1964 and 1976," referring to a period when many schools in the country failed to include World War II and the Holocaust in their curriculums.
She later condemned the crimes of the Nazi era, backtracking after growing public pressure and disapproval from within her own party. Even the country's popular daily newspaper Kronen Zeitung, which had initially backed her campaign, withdrew its support. "Barbara Rosenkranz failed to mobilise the Freedom Party's core voters mostly young, male blue-collar workers," Günther Ogris, director of the Vienna-based social science institute Sora, tells TIME. "She was forced to distance herself from far-right ideology. She was too cautious."
Or maybe, as other analysts believe, she wasn't cautious enough. Wolfgang Bachmayer, political analyst and director of Vienna's OGM polling institute, thinks Rosenkranz quickly lost support because she went one step too far. "[She] was very naïve and misjudged far-right voters," he says. "Being open to rightwing issues by adopting an anti-immigration and anti-Islamic stance does not include tolerance of Neo-Nazi views."
Back in March, Rosenkranz enjoyed a surge in the polls of more than 20% and her far-right Freedom Party had been banking on winning 35% of the vote in the presidential election. On Sunday night, far-right leaders were left scratching their heads wondering what had gone wrong. Rosenkranz's colleague, Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, was quick to blame the poor result on "an unprecedented media witch-hunt."
The far-right's losses were seized upon by Austria's big parties as a vote of confidence in the country's democratic values. "Heinz Fischer's election success is a victory for everyone who stands for values like democracy and humanity and [who] opposes right-wing extremism," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, a Social Democratic, told reporters on Sunday.
But only one in two Austrians even bothered to vote turnout was around 49%, a historic low and down from 72% at the last presidential election in 2004. Statistics also showed that 7% of the votes cast were invalid. And to many observers, this election wasn't much of a race. The other major party, the center-right People's Party, (OVP), failed to field a candidate for the mainly ceremonial office as there was a general consensus that the re-election of the popular Fischer was a foregone conclusion. "Heinz Fischer was always the favorite to win," says Bachmayer. "He ran a mild, soft campaign and he was a unifying figure his role as a mediator appealed to voters right across the political spectrum."
And while this election may have stalled the far-right's rise, it hasn't stopped it completely. On election night, Martin Graf, a member of the Freedom Party, told the Austrian daily Der Standard that his party's loss "wasn't sad and it isn't a setback." And as Rosenkranz goes back to her old job in the provincial government of Lower Austria, the party leader Strache has his eye on the powerful position of Mayor of Vienna in October's elections.
The Sora Institute's Ogris warns that the threat of the far right should not be underestimated. "The Freedom Party is in a weakened position," he says. "[But it] is still the third biggest party in Austria and it could still attract protest voters from the mainstream parties." So although Rosenkranz received a kicking from Austrian voters on Sunday, the country's far right is still a force to be reckoned with.