Far-right on cusp of power in elec­tion show­down

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Vi­enna

Aus­tri­ans re­turned to the polls on Sun­day in a bit­terly fought marathon elec­tion, which could pro­pel the Euro­pean Union’s first far-right pres­i­dent to power and boost the anti-es­tab­lish­ment tide sweep­ing many coun­tries.

Nor­bert Hofer of the hard­line Free­dom Party hopes to emerge vic­to­ri­ous af­ter he nar­rowly lost to his Greens­backed ri­val Alexan­der Van der Bellen in a first run-off in May, which was an­nulled over bal­lot count breaches.

Boosted by Brexit and Don­ald Trump’s shock US elec­tion win, smooth-tongued gun en­thu­si­ast Hofer has vowed to “get rid of the dusty es­tab­lish­ment” and fight against “Brus­sels cen­tral­iz­ing power”.

“We want to be part of the EU but not to lose our iden­tity,” voter Hel­wig Leibinger told AFP at Hofer’s fi­nal rally in Vi­enna on Fri­day.

“We want a com­man­der-inchief of the armed forces who can give the right or­ders.”

Al­though Aus­tria’s pres­i­dency is largely cer­e­mo­nial, ob­servers fear a win for Hofer, 45, would trig­ger a domino ef­fect in the wake of key elec­tions next year in France, Ger­many and The Nether­lands.

Pop­ulist groups across Europe, on the right and the left, have ben­e­fit­ted from a grow­ing sense of un­ease about glob­al­iza­tion, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, ris­ing in­equal­ity, and aus­ter­ity cuts.

The Aus­trian vote also comes on the same day as a high-stakes ref­er­en­dum in Italy, which could claim the scalp of its prime min­is­ter and re­new chaos in a bloc al­ready weak­ened by Bri­tain’s de­ci­sion in June to quit the EU.

One wor­ry­ing as­pect for EU de­ci­sion-mak­ers is that Hofer’s win might also pave the way for a re­turn to gov­ern­ment of his pop­u­lar Free­dom Party.

‘Rea­son, not ex­tremes’

Some 6.4 mil­lion vot­ers were el­i­gi­ble to cast bal­lots at polling sta­tions which opened at 0600 GMT and closed at 1600 GMT. Exit polls were ex­pected shortly af­ter­wards.

Polls sug­gest that Hofer, de­scribed as the far-right’s “friendly face”, is neck-and­neck with ex-Green party chief Van der Bellen. The 72-yearold, who runs as an in­de­pen­dent, won by just 31,000 votes in May.

The re-run marks the end of an ugly 11-month cam­paign, which saw Hofer posters be­ing de­faced with Hitler mous­taches and Van der Bellen’s with dog ex­cre­ment.

Both can­di­dates is­sued fi­nal video ap­peals on Satur­day urg­ing Aus­tri­ans to cast their bal­lots, amid grow­ing voter fa­tigue.

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