December 05, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Zig and Zag

The defeat of far-right Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer could become the high-water mark of the populist gains in Europe and the United States.

“We are all, equally, Austrians, no matter how we voted at the ballot box,” wrote Norbert Hofer, the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, in his concession statement.

Norbert’s opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen, increased his share of the vote over their previous face offs, indicating that Austrians pulled together to reject Hofer.

“He built a broad coalition,” Editor in Chief Alexandra Föderl-Schmid of the Austrian left-wing daily Der Standard told the New York Times.

Hofer gave his critics plenty of material. His anti-immigrant, Euro-skeptic brand of nationalism evoked a dark past. Until recently, for instance, Hofer on his lapel often sported a blue cornflower, a symbol of German nationalism and Austrian support for Nazism.

But Hofer’s message nonetheless resonated with many Austrians who were concerned about Europe’s incompetence in the face of millions of refugees flooding into Europe in the past two years. Similar concerns in neighboring Germany have vaulted the far-right Alternative for Germany party to new heights.

Hofer won the first round of voting in April. Van der Bellen won the subsequent runoff, but the results were thrown out due to questions over mail ballots and un-sticky envelope glue, forcing another vote. The farce was widely viewed as undercutting confidence in Austrian democracy.

Hofer capitalized on the disgust and Van der Bellen capitalized on Hofer’s stoking of radical views. The result was not always pretty.

In one television debate covered by the BBC, the two devolved into bickering as the 72-year old Van der Bellen, an economics professor and former Green Party leader who ran as an independent, mocked Hofer’s paranoia of European Union bureaucrats.

Van der Bellen: “I’m talking about Europe: E-U-R-O-P-E. Never heard of it?”

Hofer: “My God the schoolmasterliness, Herr Doktor Van der Bellen.”

After the successful Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory, the far right seemed unstoppable. Van der Bellen’s success was the first time someone had stood up to a far-right cause and won.

Still, Austria is just a battle in a wider conflict.

Italian voters on Sunday soundly rejected a referendum on constitutional reforms in a move seen as a barometer of Euro-skepticism there – giving a boost to the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Front is widely expected to make it to the presidential runoff in that country next year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a general election next year, too. It could become a referendum on her refugee policies, which are unpopular among many Germans but also viewed as an unavoidable, humanitarian obligation.

Voters will decide whether global politics tilts more towards the star of Hofer and his fellow travelers. Until then, the Austrian results suggest the tide could be turning.

WANT TO KNOW

Rexit

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pledged to tender his resignation, possibly Monday, after his referendum on constitutional reforms was soundly defeated over the weekend, raising the specter of months of instability in Europe’s fourth-largest economy.

“The ‘No’ won in an incredibly clear way,” the New York Times quoted Renzi as saying. “I assume all the responsibility of the defeat.”

Renzi’s resignation could result in a caretaker government staffed with technocrats appointed by the Italian president or possibly early elections in 2017 – though Italy’s new electoral law is under review by the country’s constitutional court, the paper said.

Seen in part as a Brexit-style referendum on the European Union, the “No” vote offered a boost to Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which advocates a referendum to determine whether Italy should give up the euro. Financial analysts warned that the resulting instability could trigger a financial crisis in Italy.

The Dealmaker

It’s the deals that self-described “dealmaker” Donald Trump may undo that are the preoccupation of most other world leaders. But Iran took a blow from the US Senate before the president-elect has even taken office.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday slammed the Senate for voting to extend the president’s authority to impose a longstanding package of trade, energy, defense and banking sanctions against Iran – it’s a move, he said, that undermines the landmark nuclear agreement forged by President Barack Obama, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In the wake of Trump’s pledge to dismantle the agreement and the harsh, anti-Iran rhetoric of the incoming administration, however, Rouhani said Tehran had no intention of abandoning the deal.

On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to extend the president’s right to impose sanctions on Iran, even though many of them have been suspended since the nuclear deal went into effect last year. The idea is to keep the pressure on Tehran to adhere to the terms of the agreement. But it put moderates like Rouhani in a tight spot with the country’s hardliners, the New York Times said.

No Surrender

As Syrian government troops pushed further into Aleppo, promising to recapture the rebel-held portions of the city in a matter of weeks, rebel leaders refused to abandon the key stronghold – squandering hopes of a swift end to the carnage.

Western and regional states backing the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad appear unwilling or unable to do anything to prevent a major defeat, Reuters reported. But the rebels have told the United States they will not leave the city, as Russia has demanded, the agency said.

The United Nations Security Council will vote Monday on a draft resolution demanding a seven-day truce in the besieged city. But it’s not clear if Moscow will veto the move.

The UN estimates that close to 30,000 people have been displaced by the latest fighting and says more than 100,000 people may still be in the rebel-held area.

DISCOVERIES

The Case of the Missing Count

With its intimate connections to the British royal family, the Leine Palace in Lower Saxony, Germany – home to King George I when he was still merely Georg Ludwig of the House of Hannover – has seen its share of aristocratic intrigue.

Now a state parliament house, the palace once again became the backdrop of a historical soap opera this summer when workers discovered centuries-old bones hidden under a section of the floor during renovations.

Researchers speculated the bones were the key to solving a 300-year-old mystery: the disappearance of Philipp Christoph von Königsmark, a Swedish count whom many suspect King George of murdering.

Amid a torrid affair with Georg’s then-wife Sophia Dorothea of Celle, the count disappeared in 1694 on the day he and Sophia Dorothea had planned to run away together. Many suspect Georg murdered Königsmark and hid the body where he was last seen: Leine Palace.

Test results released in November refuted this speculation, as scientists found the bones belonged to at least five different people, none of whom could have been Königsmark.

Those looking for a resolution to this enigma will have to keep searching. But others maintain that the case is better left unsolved.

“Wouldn’t it be a pity to solve this romantic mystery?” said Heinrich Jobst, the present day Count of neighboring Wintzingerode.

Check out a video detailing this historical love triangle here.