Aus­tria’s pres­i­den­tial ri­vals clash in de­bate

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The two can­di­dates in Aus­tria’s longest ever pres­i­den­tial race clashed Sun­day over the Euro­pean Union, Don­ald Trump, and mi­grants as they faced off in a TV duel a week be­fore the runoff. Greens­backed con­tender Alexan­der Van der Bellen ac­cused his far-right ri­val Nor­bert Hofer of stir­ring inse­cu­rity by threat­en­ing to pull Aus­tria out of the EU.

Hofer of the anti-im­mi­gra­tion Free­dom Party (FPOe) has said he would call a ref­er­en­dum on EU mem­ber­ship if Tur­key joined the 28-mem­ber club or if Brus­sels tried to cen­tral­ize power fur­ther. “The FPOe has been toy­ing with Aus­tria’s exit for 20 years. Many politi­cians in Europe are wor­ried that the mere spec­u­la­tion could trig­ger... an avalanche of right-wing pop­ulism,” said 72year-old Van der Bellen dur­ing the live de­bate broad­cast on pri­vate chan­nel ATV. “The most im­por­tant thing is the sol­i­dar­ity be­tween mem­ber states, oth­er­wise we won’t be able to as­sert our­selves in the face of Rus­sia or the United States.”

But Hofer, 45, dis­missed the al­le­ga­tions as me­dia-led “scare-mon­ger­ing”. “There won’t be an ‘Oexit’. I’ve re­peat­edly said that I want a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment of the EU,” he said. While Van der Bellen stressed Aus­tria’s im­por­tant re­la­tion­ship with its largest trade part­ner Ger­many, Hofer vowed to seek closer ties with east­ern and cen­tral Euro­pean neigh­bors and, pri­mar­ily, Rus­sia. He de­nounced Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel for “caus­ing se­ri­ous dam­age to Europe” with her open-door pol­icy, which he said has al­lowed hun­dreds of thou­sands of mi­grants “in­clud­ing ter­ror­ists to trek through Aus­tria” since last year.

Hofer also at­tacked Van der Bellen for crit­i­ciz­ing the US elec­tion win of Don­ald Trump. “It is not clever to de­scribe a pres­i­dent as a rab­ble rouser,” he said. Van der Bellen hit back say­ing politi­cians across Europe felt “anx­ious” about the ar­rival of a US pres­i­dent-elect who has been ac­cused of sex­ist at­tacks on women and threat­en­ing the rights of mi­nori­ties. Like Trump as well as other pop­ulist groups in Europe, the FPOe has boosted sup­port by stok­ing con­cerns about im­mi­gra­tion and what it por­trays as an out-of-touch elite.

Hofer hopes to be­come the EU’s first far­right head of state on De­cem­ber 4, af­ter nearly 350 days of cam­paign­ing. In May, he lost by a pa­per-thin mar­gin to Van der Bellen, but the FPOe got the re­sult over­turned due to pro­ce­dural er­rors.

A re-run set for Oc­to­ber was again post­poned be­cause of faulty glue on postal vote en­velopes.

Opin­ion polls sug­gest next Sun­day’s race is too close to call. Hofer said he would not con­test the out­come this time. — AFP

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