Far-right on cusp of power in election showdown
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.